Friday, May 9, 2008

Lured back to the shanty town

I went back for the wedding. In the end, I simply couldn't resist. The village has become an obsession, pulling me into its warm, fuzzy yet vaguely sinister embrace. Sinister because to yield to its charms could be to succumb to the spell of nostalgia to the point of no return, like Brigadoon or the dacha horrifically adrift in a lugubrious extraterresial sea in 'Solaris'. But sinister be damned. I had hopelessly fallen in love with the place, and I had to go back.

The town had so much that was missing from my life. People young and old going about their lives openly and without any visible purpose or urgency, talking, napping, scolding, making tea or broth, weaving invisible intrigues. The mysterious, omnipresent yet unimposing presence of a female oracle covering the town like a warm blanket. Listening to a favorite radio station a few hours before my visit, there had been a compelling exchange between the host and a caller about the importance of community, which is even more precious now everything around us seems to be conspiring to belittle and destroy it. A few days earlier, I might have scorned such sentiment. But now, the probing on-air political analysis that had been a feature elsewhere on the station, and which initially had drawn me to it, suddenly seemed like so much hot air.

Had the town really changed me that much?

As I prepared for my return, I was on two missions. One was to share with the town leaders some information I had gleaned which suggested that he powers-that-be would evict the gypsies sooner than they were prepared for. The other was to buy a wedding present.

I didn't know the bride and groom, and anything beyond the simplest and cheapest of gifts would be the fauxest of faux pas. My first impulse was to buy one of those cheesy snow globes with a miniature wedding scene. But I realized this could easily turn into one of those impossible "needle in a haystack" quests I set myself all too often. Plus, I wanted to go somewhat out on a limb, and choose a gift that would somehow reflect the strong and mysterious feelings I had developed for the town. I decided that this particular mission was less a matter of money than of finding the right symbolism. A quick trip to the junky second hand store around the corner should suffice.

Amidst the unwanted teacups and tourist mugs, a small black tower stood out. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a candle holder in which a tiny primitive effigy had been crudely carved out of Hawaiian lava.

It did suffice, and how. In fact, it was little short of perfect.

On the way back I picked up a pineapple, remembering how one of the older women had, as I was having breakfast (instant coffee with powdered milk and two biscuits, which I had to wait half an hour for), told me in no uncertain terms that I should bring a gift back to the town - such as the delicious melon that we had all shared the night before. At home, I rummaged through my postcard collection and fished out a picture of a baby seal which I planned to give to Georgina, the woman who had proudly displayed her collection of animal pictures over the very same breakfast. I had already tracked down what may have been the only store in Berlin stocking Dulce de Leche, which I planned to present to the jolly Argentianian barwoman. I rationalized my extravagance by telling myself that it had all set me back the cash equivalent of buying a better opera seat in the next balcony down.

The irony of choosing a metaphor from the opera world to justify gifts to people living a hand to mouth existence by no means escaped me. The countless contrasts between their lives and mine was inspiring constant streams of thought, and a constant flow of impulses. The operatic absurdity was just one among many. But it was one that, like several others I had dismissed over the past couple of days, ultimately didn't have much bite. I suspected that the townspeople (or the shrewder amongst them at least) would not view such absurdities as anything serious, given the seriously absurd hardships they had to endure every day. This thought gave me a paradoxical sense of quietly elated freedom, and I let the stream flow.

As I did, I reflected on a conversation I had had with Officer Lando at the bar two nights before. I was telling her how surprised I was that the townspeople were so reticent about greeting me in the streets - but hastened to add that this was a good thing, it showed they had integrity. After ridiculing the notion of the townspeople having integrity, she asserted that they were as friendly as they could be, and maybe I was the one who was being reticent.

I realized she was right. I was a self-imposed exile in a foreign land, paranoid about his limited language skills and feeling the lack of societal and professional roots. My first spell of wandering in foreign climes had been somewhat of a failure. Since moving on, fate seems to be conspiring to make me a loner. I spend long hours at home, and when I do venture out I often feel uninclined to initiate conversations. Some days, my only sense of achievement was making a trip to the shop that could be completed without incident. This was the man strolling through their alleyways and looking at them as if they were being a little too reticent.

They must be reading me like an open book.

Maybe the reason I am so drawn to the town is that it is holding up a mirror to my soul. Maybe the reason I feel so good there is that it reflects the essence of my humanity, that it is so much easier to see myself, warts and all, than it is in my everyday life. I had experienced something similar in Venice. All that omnipresent, luminous green water was like the subconscious, and wandering around on top of it felt like the most natural thing in the world, made me feel profoundly human.

Just before I left for the shanty town, I did a web search for Hawaiian deities. I thought it would add a nice touch if I could find the right story to go with the gift. I immediately discovered a goddess called Pele, who dwells in a huge volcano on Mauna Loa. She's the goddess of lightning, fire, dancing, violence and volcanos. She can transform herself into different shapes, notably a dog, an old woman (my effigy could have been a cross between the two) and an irresistable young woman. Since her violent eruptions create huge lava flows that expand the land into the sea, she was much revered by Hawaiian islanders, who, like the gypsies, have so little acreage in the first place - the territory of the former is circumscribed by the sea, that of the latter by the military. Maybe, just maybe, when the bride lights the candle, the flames will dance around the effigy squatting in the lava in such a way that the wild temptress will spring to life in the shadows and the heat, and the luck of the townspeople will take a turn for the better.

Nice touch? Perfect, I should say. I found the story in a flash. How on earth could I have been so lucky?

I had half assumed that the gifts would be subject to inspection by the border guards. The small print on my entry pass confirmed this. The officers seemed to take a lax and reasonable enough attitude to the needs of the townspeople - indeed, they even openly showed affection for them - but having devoted so much time and energy to my task I didn't want to take any chances that would spoil it. Thus I bore my little bounty secretly through the checkpoint with feelings of apprehension and guilt far out of proportion to its miniscule monetary value.

Sentimental value is of little consequence nowadays to security guards who are trained to blot out all else but thoughts of suicide bombing. This place shared none of that obsession, of which I was glad. And it was quite clear that the guards would be unlikely to confiscate gifts when they knew a wedding was taking place. But I guess I've just taken off too many pairs of shoes and unloaded too many keys and laptops and set off too many metal detectors with stray coins or forgotten mobile phones or belt buckles or, most heartbreaking of all, a jar of homemade honey that the guards decided was a potential bomb. At the sight of those uniforms, my nerves were never likely to be entirely calmed. I kept quiet, and endured my little internal, largely self-inflicted trial. They let me through with not so much as a glance at my bag.

I was glad to see familiar faces, and they seemed glad to see me. I found Sonia in the middle of a dispute with two upstarts trying to wrangle free drinks out of her - they were half joking, but she was more than half serious. I asked her what she missed most about Argentina. She replied, "What, things?" I said yes. She thought for a moment, then said the name of a cookie she could see I didn't know. I started fishing around in my bag, and she blurted out "Shall I close my eyes?" which she did, and covered them with her hands for good measure. "Oh! Is it Dulce de Leche?" She opened her eyes and shrieked with joy, then gave me a big hug. "It's the good stuff!" she cried. "Someone else brought some from Chile, it was horrible." Then she shouted over my shoulder at the two young men, "See! This is how you should treat me. This guy hadn't asked for free drinks and look at the gift he brought me!" Then she rushed over to show her Argentinian friend the jar, talking Spanish a mile a minute, then came back and gave me a second big hug, then hurried back behind the bar. The young men had fallen completely silent.

I wandered around looking for where the action was. Rico met me and introduced me to Joel, the groom, who apologized for not being up for conversation. I spotted the bride getting her hair done - it was Georgina, the woman with the animal pictures! The gifts were turning out to be more fitting than I ever could have anticipated.

With time on my hands before the wedding, I wandered. There was a crowd upstairs at Martha's, and I joined them. Martha was talking to a young mother as her infant daughter gazed up in amazement. The tiny girl eventually began toddling around, as tiny girls do, and found her way back to the top of the stairs, where visitors are given an obligatory dash of talcum powder to bathe their hands in a ritual akin to Christian feet washing. She got the desired dash of powder, which she earnestly bore to the center of the room on the back of her tiny fist. The young mother apologized to Martha for the distraction, but Martha replied on the contrary, it was appropriate that this should be happening, and she was happy.

On a whim, I quietly held up my fist to her, playfully offering her the congratulatory sign so familiar on US basketball courts and playgrounds. But this was Berlin, a place where a raised fist may well conjure up other associations. I was aware how silent the room had fallen, and that my gesture may have been unintentionally startling, but somehow felt confident that the infant would respond in kind. She hesitated for a moment, then, with all eyes upon us, bobbed gently towards me and duly touched my knuckles with hers - just like they do in Brooklyn. A few minutes later she came across once more. I belatedly held my fist up to greet hers, and she knocked down on it twice.

I don't know why I held up my fist - it just felt right. But its significance was magnified in the context of Martha's room. The tiny girl's fascination and instinctive movements seemed to encapsulate the wonder that we were all feeling in that mysterious place. No-one told me how they felt about our little fist knocking fest, so I can't truly say whether anyone else felt what I did. But for me, there was magic in that moment. I imagined it to be a transfer of strength between the generations, which would give her the independence and fighting spirit she needed to grow up into a strong woman. And the fact that the infant grew in confidence so quickly, that by the second pass she was happily banging down on my fist, could be proof enough that she got the same message I did. I suspect, even though I can't tell you exactly why, that the transfer of strength was not all one way.

The wedding was a makeshift but happy affair. The couple received a simple blessing from Martha, who bound them together with consecrated string and 'dubbed' the couple multiple times on different parts of their bodies with a phallic sceptre. Then the couple sat in a cart which doubled as a kind of village stage, and, as the crowd circled around a bare space in front of the cart, began receiving townspeople announcing their gifts. I waited until I thought all of them had done their thing, then made the short walk across the empty space. I hoisted up the pineapple towards the groom, and oohs and aahs and applause from the crowd drowned out my exclamation "A sign of welcome!" I handed the lava effigy in its cheap Chinese gift bag to the bride, saying sotto voce that I would explain it later. Then I fumbled a bit nervously in my pocket for the postcard, and brandished it with some relief. Georgina squealed with delight, and gave me a big hug. Startled and pleased, I mumbled "Many happy days" before sidling off to blend into the crowd once more. It had gone much better than I could have imagined. True to form, the simplest gift had made the strongest impact.

The night was yet young, and I had many more encounters before I walked home through the deserted streets at 3am. I spoke at some length with Martha and Leo, the town leader, about their plans for taking care of the townspeople should they be evicted. I saw a little show the townspeople arranged for the wedding party, featuring a sword swallower, Latino and African dancers, an angelic violist, and plenty of singing. I helped out a fellow tourist who was caught rummaging around the military encampment, observing while he was being interrogated and making sure he was let go. I got a two Euro massage from a witty yet severe young waif of a woman. Sonia danced for Joseph and I, and I danced with Officer Rosanna Lando. This turned out to be an unexpectedly strange experience. It was nice to dance with Rosanna, but not so nice to dance with the Officer. I hadn't anticipated the kind of psychological complexities that might rear their mildly ugly heads when you find yourself with your hand on the swaying waist of a woman in uniform, no matter how pleasant that woman may be.

Am I going back tonight? Do flowers bloom in spring?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

First Reports from a Shanty Town

I’ve just come back from visiting a shanty town.

The town is a gypsy settlement located in an abandoned, overgrown rail yard in south Berlin. It's being advertised as some kind of tourist attraction - something to do with finding new ways to make these kinds of communities self sufficient and better integrated. It’s exactly like you would imagine - shacks built out of scavenged wood and fibreglass, broken down caravans, faded 50s decor, omnipresent cheap pictures of the madonna, a non-stop cacophany of oldies blaring from radios mixed with the sound of B movie soundtracks from the portable black and white TVs that seemed to be on every kitchen table. There are maybe thirty people in the village, wearing grubby cast off clothes and wandering the alleyways with inscrutable expressions. Not that they have nothing on their minds, far from it. They just seem to be used to having visitors and feel no obligation to acknowledge the presence of one more stranger like me. Or maybe they just feel a greeting would be a waste of energy. You didn't have to look very far to see that living cooped up in a barren pen with the slenderest of means would be a relentlessly draining existence.

You need an entry permit, which is a simple procedure administered by one of a small consignmment of unarmed soldiers who hang out in trailers at the entrance to the town. I wasn’t expecting to have to go through this, and was vaguely resentful. A uniformed soldier ordering you around in Berlin? Too many bad associations. It was only later that I discovered that the soldiers had all been posted there on a kind of compassionate discharge programme - they’d all done something questionable, or had something questionable done to them, that would normally get them into hot water, but rather than put them through the official grinder the military assigned them to this quiet backwater to serve out their remaining time and mingle good-naturedly with the locals.

I first visited at three on Sunday afternoon. It was a warm day, and things were kind of slow. Apart from a brief greeting from Rico, a strapping boyish redhead, who met me as I entered, I wandered lonely as a cloud through the dusty alleyways, wondering why I was there. I did get into a conversation with the lady at the bar, who had a friendly open face. Her name was Sonia and she came from Argentina. I was curious about the legal status of the town, which seemed to exist in a twilight zone all its own. She wasn’t sure either, and suggested I talk to Joseph, who she said had travelled a lot. Then she turned away to serve someone else.

But after half an hour, young women suddenly started running through the alleyways, breathlessly telling each other that someone named Martha had appeared. I followed them to an elevated wood structure which dominated the town, climbed up the rickety wooden stairs, and there, sitting on the edge of a cushioned recess decorated with white fabric and lace curtains, sat a woman I took to be Martha. She wore a floor-length vintage white lace dress which had faded to grey, and long black hair flowed down from under her headscarf. She seemed oblivious to the gathering crowd - making herself up with a pocket mirror, puffing on a cigarette. A thin, haunted young woman with dishevelled red hair unburdened her heart about a disquieting encounter with a young man who had paid her to strip (I had been warned by the soldiers that the young women would try to sell themselves to me, and that they had diseases). Martha responded by recounting a dream, whose logic I couldn’t begin to follow. The women seemed to treat her as some kind of mystic, but I felt too apart, too much of an outsider to take this seriously.

I decided to come back after dark, hoping that things would be more lively. I got back around 11pm. They’d run out of vodka, and everyone seemed a little drunk. I settled for a shot of Korn, which was cheaper and a lot rougher. I tried to get drunk so I could interact more easily. There seemed to be a conscious effort on the part of the inhabitants to keep their distance, unless the visitors initiated contact. As I suspected, the night was livelier, but there was still not a lot going on.

I wanted to get into a conversation, but I couldn’t. The inhabitants seemed to view everything with indifference, save for the rhythm of their own inner lives. Here I was, yearning for an elevated experience of some kind... an escape? But all I was finding was an essential boredom.

There’s a kind of miniature town square near Martha’s building. I perched on a cart opposite, hoping someone would talk to me. And it worked. First came a female soldier, who was the one who set me straight on the situation of her and her fellow soldiers as admonished refugees of a different kind. She abruptly left when one of the gypsy women tried to sell me a lock of Martha's hair, which upset the gypsy. I dutifully bought the hair, but the gypsy just strolled away. Then I met Joseph, who’s fifty and constantly wore a smile. He’s a widower with a son, and did indeed seem to be a bit of a wanderer. He told me how he likes the village, that even though you know someone’s a liar, you live with it, because there’s a bond between people that doesn’t exist where he was up north, where everyone was separated into their individual boxes. I was beginning to understand what he meant, there was a warmth and cosiness to the town that was indeed very attractive.

I asked him about his most recent journey, and he told me it had been with Margareta, one of the two African girls in the village, to find her child. They managed to find her hometown, but it was deserted. I tried to ask what happened next, but he got distracted and suddenly left.

I wandered into the restaurant to write down some notes for this blog. The same gypsy that had sold me the lock of hair came up and asked me what I was doing. I told her and smiled, she smiled back in approval. Then she drifted away, sensing perhaps that I was keen to continue with my writing. I was no longer feeling lonely, I was engrossed in the quiet drama of the village.

A little later an officer abruptly sat down opposite me. I had seen her from afar, a tall, attractive woman with curly black hair, elegantly made up. Now I could see her up close, I realized she was a transvestite. (come to think of it, her breasts had seemed a little boxy). S/he asked me a few innocuous questions, and I tried not to betray my suprise. Before I had a chance to ask her the question I should have - what is your dark secret, the one that led you to be here? - s/he asked me if I would like to see a peepshow. Playing the part of the obediant tourist open to any experience, I said sure. S/he abruptly led me to a shack, told me to sit on the bed and wait, and stormed through the town, yelling "Romy! Romy! There's a man who wants a peepshow!"

In another context, I would have felt mortified. But this was a different world, one with an erotic charge that ran through the town like invisible electricity, as free of moral censure as one could imagine. We are humans, humans like sex, look there are available young women everywhere in this town, live a little. If there are complications later, let's face it, that's life, everyone here has such problems. But in a place like this, how could you possibly hide them? Everyone knows what everyone else is up to here, and it's not always pretty. They bring their problems to Martha, no matter what they do she still loves them, she comforts them, she forgives them.

Romy turned out to be a petite woman in her early twenties, who looked like she might have come from the Indian subcontinent (yes, there did indeed seem to be people from every continent in this town). She seemed startled to be summoned with such alacrity, and as soon as she came through the door blurted out "You wanted me?" The oddness of the situation flashed through my mind - I realized later this was the first strip show I had ever seen in the flesh, and not in some Hollywood movie - then after a moment's hesitation, I offered a somewhat hesitant "yes". This established a certain matter of factness for the events that followed. She took me to a curtained off back room with a sofa, put on some music and did a well practiced dance, shedding her top but leaving on her skirt and stockings. I looked her in the eye, feeling that it would somehow be improper to let my gaze wander over her body, that this would reduce her to an object and this would be a travesty.

Yet the sight of her naked breasts provoked an impulse to want to touch her, which was just as soon trampled down by the superior forces of my conscience listing the multitude of reasons why this was just not gonna happen. That's not to deny that my imagination was laying out what might happen if I did try to take things further, as if I was a screenwriter grappling with a movie plot. Realizing that the story would inevitably involve an ever increasing outlay of cash (for this striptease, like all services offered in the town, had its price tag) which would surely correspond exactly and uncannily to the increasing damage this would do to our lives and to our souls, wrapping this one up at the first opportunity was a no brainer. She asked me if I had liked it, and I told her I had. But, genuine as it was, it was the compliment of a man who felt a responsibility to handle the feelings of a vulnerable young woman with care. I paid my two Euros, smiled and left.

(I saw her the next morning in the restaurant - a look of shock flashed across her face, which she tried to cover up with a bright "good morning". She was ashamed. How similar had her response been to mine?)

I spent the early hours at the bar, flirting innocuously with a young officer named Rosanna Lando who seemed to be from Ireland - she denied this when I suggested it, and claimed instead to be from some obscure place named Inishmoor. The buses were on strike, and it would be a long walk home, so I decided to take advantage of the general offer to bed down for the night somewhere in the town. After a mini dispute over the status of my entry pass, officer Lando and her colleague gave me the necessary stamp, and Joseph directed me to one of the rooms next to Martha’s, an alcove with a sloping roof made of dirty cracked fiberglass which had mattresses covering the floor. An hour or so later I was joined by four others - four men and a woman all crammed into this elevated loft, with Perry Como schmalz and Peggy Lee sultryness and the sunset in Palm Springs version of "Sunrise, Sunset" blaring out incessantly from the speakers directly beneath. It was virtually impossible to sleep, and it was all strangely comforting.

I caught maybe three hours’ shut eye. But I was happy. Somehow, through all the frustration and vague sense of apartness, I felt that the town had embraced me. I’m thinking of going back, there’s a wedding on Wednesday and I’m invited.