Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1989 (exclamation point)

I went to a talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the panel was a soft-spoken Hungarian academic who had been in the thick of the action on the streets of Budapest. He had an uncanny gift for finding exactly the right word. He was one of the young reformers who suddenly found themselves creating new alliances and parties out of thin air as Grósz, the Hungarian premier, successfully read the political tea leaves and unhitched his country from the yoke of the Soviet Union. The academic's chosen path had eventually diverged from his former colleagues as they rose to political prominence. With characteristic precision, he gave us exactly as much detail about his reasons for doing so as was polite, and not an iota more.

I wanted to ask what he knew about the theater companies, if they had prospered or faltered in the post-communist world, stripped of their state subsidies and with few defenses against the juggernaut of Western popular entertainment that was to crash so indiscriminately through the shreds of the Iron Curtain soon afterward. When I finally managed to buttonhole him, holding a plastic cup of cheap wine and fighting the infernal noise (a post-panel cabaret - a post-panel cabaret??? - was belting out songs in a hard-edged concrete and glass space, most of the audience had fled, and those of us who remained had to shout to be heard) I stumbled. I filled my lungs and boomed a hopelessly fragmented version of my question in the general direction of his right ear, responded to his incomprehension with a last-gasp resort to platitudes, then, as a cabaret singer screamed out "Salami!!!" at the top of her voice, muttered my thanks and good wishes and bolted for the door.

In any case, I probably wouldn't have gotten the answer I was looking for. And what was that? When the Wall came down, I was nearing the end of my stay in a sleepy picture-book western Massachusetts town. The one thing that stands out in my memory is that Heiner Müller, author of the book Germania which I had special ordered from the local bookstore and promptly devoured, had been in New York to perform Heiner Goebbels' Man in the Elevator at The Kitchen, but had been so overwhelmed at the news that they had to cancel his appearance.

Q: And do you feel history is working for you?

A: Absolutely. [He laughs] This is my chance.

Q: History is making you...

A: Yes, the last German writer.

I could only speculate at what Müller and his compatriots must have been feeling. But my curiosity was strong enough to take me to Berlin in 1991, two years after the Wall fell and when disillusion had seriously begun to sink in. They were selling "We Want our Wall Back" T-shirts. The locals, bewildered and resentful, shot dark glances from sleep-deprived eyes underneath mangy shocks of bleached hair. It was as if their roots had been ripped out from under them. There were exhibitions about the history of Berlin everywhere. The city seemed to be in search of its soul.

I was told my German wasn't too bad, but after having my head bitten off for the umpteenth time by an impatient counter clerk I begged a colleague for an explanation. "We call them 'Schnauzers'," he said sympathetically. "Say something in German." After I did so, he observed with characteristic German precision, "Your accent is very strange. It's not American, closer to French... And your skin is quite dark." (We had just come back from a residency in Portugal, and I had a tan). "Maybe they think you are Turkish. If you make it clear that you are American, that could solve the problem."

I tried it out in a bank. Behind the counter was a well-coiffed middle aged woman - the very quintessence of Schnauzer. I took a deep breath, and muttered "Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Englisch?" - "Excuse me, do you speak English?". "Nein," she shot back, but free of the edge I had been dreading. I then stumbled on in German, and she immediately brightened up. Was she relieved at my ability to converse in her native language, however awkwardly? Or was it just that I wasn't Turkish? I will never know, but you can bet I went through that routine every time from that point on. And retain a special sympathy for the Turkish community in Berlin to this day.

(I was also delighted to see Berlin graciously hand over the vast Breitscheidplatz to tens of thousands of ecstatic Turkish revellers following a famous victory over Croatia in the Euro 2008 soccer finals. And the Turkish team valiantly take the Germans to the wire in the following round, while predictions of riots were belied by the ensuing good humor and good sportsmanship as Germany scraped through with a narrow win)

Along with the experience of being a confused (and confusing) immigrant in 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me the swansong of a theatrical dream, a vision of how work and culture could be seamlessly intertwined in a hip 24-hour copyshop, visions of Trabis whose engines would suddenly give a huge tinny "pop!" and die there and then in the middle of the murky streets. And a nocturnal encounter by a flower shop under the U-Bahn overpass at Schlesisches Tor, which was to bring me back to the same spot nearly two decades later.

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