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.

No comments: