Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

Jogger’s journal

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 15.58.222pm, Wednesday, Friedrich-Ludwig-Sportpark. My usual ten laps around the track. We all plug ourselves in, avoid eye contact, avoid body contact, avoid each other, spacing out at regular intervals around the track. Surreptitiously, I look at people’s running shoes and make mental notes: no tread, he’ll have back problems at the age of 65. She bought those because they look good, but they’re not really running shoes. I fall into the lazy, judgemental attitude of people out exercising, deciding who is doing it to be seen, doing it at the last possible minute in life, or doing it because they’ve always done it. When did it get so competitive? At the same time grey sweatpants went out of fashion? We keep catching up with the past, then it’s sold back to us as retro fashion. Grey sweatpants are back in. At the other extreme though you can also go high-tech: the girl gliding by with one leg clad in pink Lycra, the other in crocodile print, for example.

He stands out too.

From the very moment I catch sight of him, I know his gear is not from American Apparel, but JD Sports, circa 1992. Stonewashed red sweatshirt. Bunched-ankle blue joggers. I guess he’s in his mid-fifties, with closely cropped, grey hair, and a thick, silver man’s bracelet. There is nothing special about this. Except: he’s dancing, not jogging. Utterly lost in his own world, wearing earbuds and standing at the side of the cinder track, gyrating to his own music. It must be 1970s disco because he sways funkily, rhythmically, doing snaking, curving motions with his legs, and powerful sweeps with his arms. His face is serious, graceful. His moves are dated but his body is lithe; there is absolute conviction in his movements.

People avert their eyes as their legs pump past him like pistons. His movements couldn’t be further away from theirs. They have their eye on optimum movement: apps have charted their ideal time-versus-fitness ratio. The dancing man is unsightly – a leftover from times when people had time. He is not in it for the exercise. I feel the collective embarrassment: it passes over the bobbing heads like a wave. What is he doing? Who is he dancing for? Why not just dance in front of the mirror at home?


5pm, Saturday, Monbijou Park. A couple are sitting next to each other as I jog off to the left, passing close by; they are sitting on a bench behind the diamond-wire fencing. She is young, with long brown hair; he is young, with short black hair. Both in puffer jackets because the sun has disappeared. Hers is white; his is black. He wears hair gel and she wears lipstick. It looks like their first date. On my next lap I see that they are sitting a little closer together. Lap three, they’re holding hands. By lap four, they are at it with tongues. Lap five, she is straddling him on the park bench and they are writhing about. On my sixth and final lap, they are sitting a little further apart, texting separately on their phones.


12pm, Sunday, Kleingartenkolonie, Bornholmer Strasse. I have heard the blossom up here is pretty. First I have to risk my life crossing the dual carriageway. Then through the wooden tunnel and into another world. The urban landscape gives way to small gardens; each plot is a feat of inventiveness and derring-do. How the shacks and sheds manage to stay up is a mystery. They all bear the stamp of the individualist: blue painted roof here, a wheel for a window there. It’s warm. I see a tall, bulky man in his seventies, sweeping up leaves. He is wearing a lumberjack shirt rolled up at the sleeves. On his forearm is the remains of an old tattoo, greenish with age. He stops and looks off into the distance. A woman, also in her seventies, arrives on her bike with a basket; inside (I imagine) a picnic covered by a chequered tea towel. She kisses him on the cheek, slowly, lingeringly. They go into the lean-to hut holding hands. And there are some beautiful old cherry trees lining the path, with the promised blossom.



Anti-climaxes and adrenaline

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 10.18.41 AMLife past 45 starts getting to be one big anti-climax. Everything gets a little saggy as gravity kicks in, and on the horizon there is just one long string of breakfasts to be eaten. Or at least this is how I explain the strange lack of euphoria I feel at getting my German citizenship. What was I expecting? A letter from Angela Merkel? A fanfare of trumpets as I walked down the steps of Berzirksamt Pankow?

It started all so auspiciously. I was given a time and a date to go pick up my Citizenship Certificate – I was even asked if 8.00 wasn’t a little too early, which must be such a rare utterance in German Behörde that I wondered if Frau D. wasn’t being a little sarcastic. But if she was, there was no trace of it on her beaming face as she came out of room 119 to greet me at punkt acht Uhr. We went into her office, she whipped out a green certificate, my Einbürgerungsnachweis of which there is only one, this one, and no other, which can never, ever be copied or reproduced so God forbid I lose it. Then she asked me to stand up and walked around the table towards me, so quickly and purposefully that I thought for one moment that the Einbürgerungsritual was going to involve a Socialist kiss in Honecker-Brezhnev style. But no. She merely held onto my green one-and-only-in-the-whole-world certificate and asked me to repeat after her that I knew the laws of the land in Germany and would do my utmost not to break them. I repeated her words, thinking that technically, they weren’t true – I don’t know all the laws of the country – and wondering whether I was already committing an offence in my barely 2-minute-old existence as a German. In any case, once that was over, she squeezed my hand fiercely and wished me a happy life, or words to that effect. And I left. (more…)

Snooping: literally and literarily

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

photoLast night I went to an event about ‘snooping’. Isabel Cole and Sebastian Christ are mikrotext’s two winter programme authors; they were presented by Nikola Richter last night at the Betahaus in Kreuzberg.

Isabel Cole is a translator: in fact she and I have both translated Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s books for Seagull, and her touch is both light and incredibly poetic as a translator. It was no surprise for me to find out that she also writes, and her new ebook with mikrotext, Ungesichertes Gelände, written originally in German, is smart in both its format and content, a novella in letter form. The premise is that a woman ‘in the future’ is writing a series of love letters that touch on themes of surveillance, paranoia and the aftermath of 9/11. It’s the format that doesn’t let you stop reflecting on the content: why are we reading these private letters and why are they full of paranoia about being spied on? One audience member wondered at times if she were reading real love letters. Yet the letters make a broader point: they were born of Isabel’s interest in psychological mechanisms that exist in all of us to ‘snoop’ on others, or even be snooped on, to be the centre of attention. The protagonist (a first-person female narrator) contemplates all the things that she could do with her penknife to an air hostess in gory detail. The standard questions about who has packed her luggage, and whether she has any sharp objects in her bags at an airport security desk, take on a suggestibility; they seem to incite the protagonist, give her ideas. She is spurred to imagine the blade sweeping across the steward’s neck, and the corkscrew entering her eyeball. Those trying to protect us – our security guards – seem to be inciting to murder. (more…)

Literary translation and epublishing: some thoughts

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

photo-2It has taken a few days to write this blog post after our Fiction Canteen discussion last Thursday on payment model for translators and authors in the age of digital publishing and the role of Amazon in all this (which, on reflection, seems rather smaller than I thought.) I think I needed to get some distance to the subject matter. So these are the thoughts I have had since the dust has settled.

First, I’d like to put the talk into context. We were a group of literary translators, as well as literary publishers and epublishers, talking about the situation we find ourselves in at the moment in Germany; the moment where ebook sales stand at around 12% of all German publishing revenue. Perhaps it is a moment that has long since happened in the States, where I believe ebooks stand at more like 25% of all publishing revenue now. The talk didn’t cover the scope of digital publishing on the whole, or outside of this country.

The people present came with some specific experience: literary translators who are used to working with brick-and-mortar publishing houses, and epublishers on the panel (Volker Oppmann, Nerys Hughes, Nikola Richter and Amanda de Marco) who all have some background in traditional publishing. Essentially, all the publishers, whether of ebooks or not, saw epublishing as an exciting new opportunity: new formats can be published, such as the Single, Maxi or Long Player formats at CulturBooks (essentially a short story, a novella and a novel), or Readux’s “delightful teeny books” in print, or mikrotext’s short, challenging literary fiction. The thinking behind this change in format is certainly a phenomenon that has come out of the digital age: it’s a break with traditional publishing, a way of forging new paths in literature. What’s short but sells many times over is a way to make money. How? Via Amazon, despite it’s big bad image as an exploiter of gaps in the market at the expense of certain things we love and cherish such as independent bookstores. Amazon was described by all epublishers as pretty much indispensable. It’s a huge moving river of data, and your product has to be in it. Amanda de Marco’s experiment to try and sell her Readux books on other channels and dispense with didn’t pay off. (more…)

Wir haben jetzt Kassenschluss

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Screen shot 2013-12-06 at 12.55.01 PMI finally got my letter telling me to register for the citizenship test. They don’t print the phone number on the letter, so I Google the Volkshochschule Prenzlauer Berg, which cannot be phoned before the 29 November. So it says. I am connected after waiting a long time with a nice lady who tells me that I have landed in the art department. And that she is in a meeting. But she still gives me the correct number. This puts me in touch with a Frau B. to whom I explain that I have to come and do this test. She asks if I have received the letter asking me to phone her. When I say that I certainly have, she tells me, well, they had “Kassenschluss” last week– in fact on the 28th November– and that there was no way I could do the test before Christmas. The office for new citizens reopens on January 14th but there would be absolutely no point in me coming because “all hell would have broken loose”. I should simply now wait for her to write to me. That might be in February or so. If that was too long to wait, I could go to any Volkshochschule of my choice and say I want to do the Einbürgerungstest, and “not a sentence more”. I should disregard the bold print and underlined sentences on my letter that tell me on no account can I do the test anywhere except in the above named Volkshochschule. I tell her that this is all rather confusing. She tells me it’s not confusing at all. I should just wait for a letter from her. It would come. And Happy Christmas.

Ick bin fast Berlinerin

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013 a Berlin café

…in a Berlin café

Avert your eyes if you are particularly law-abiding. Yes, I travelled schwarz to the Bürgeramt this morning to hand in my citizenship application. It was too early in the morning, it was raining and I didn’t have any change. But it was only the Tram, as I heard two ten-year-olds say on their way to school, schwarzfahring with me. Na ja.

It is finally happening: months of paper chasing and I have my application ready, a meatloaf-sized bunch of documents to hand in. This is because I am self-employed. If you’re self-employed, you have to practically prove how much cubic oxygen you use before they’ll let you be a citizen in Germany. Which is weird because no one I know in Berlin, German or otherwise, has a real job. Approximate cost so far: €60 for a translation of my birth and marriage certs. I am taking the risk of having another €60 added as a fine for not having a valid tram ticket. But there are no ticket inspectors on the trams. Every ten-year-old knows that. (more…)

Schlingensief’s biography “Ich weiß, ich war’s”

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

4_schlingensiefSome time ago in Berlin, there was anger. There was fury, gall, and rancour, spleens vented, sabres rattled, stages stamped on in Brecht’s footprints and staccato slogans shouted in time with your feet. There was water cannon and rioting, fake police hats, real megaphones and solidarity. In the old days, everyone got angry together. It didn’t matter where your anger came from, you could always find someone to share it with. You could drink beer in angry bars, watch angry theatre, or discuss angry films.

Then anger was replaced by all-year round beer gardens, cheap flights to Vilnius, Rome or Stockholm based on whim not political conviction, and sabres were traded in for Nordic walking sticks because walking is good for you and sabre-rattling raises your blood pressure. Things gentrified and ossified.

Schlingensief was an angry figure on the German art scene, and his death has left a hole that no one artist can truly fill. This becomes clear early on in “Ich weiß, ich war’s”, (I Know It Was Me) a four-hour audio book whose very breathlessness makes it alive. Schlingensief’s associative monologues blast the listener with emotional energy – passion and outrage in full tilt towards fury. It’s a virtuoso performance, Sprechtheater in a box. (more…)

My visit to Seagull books, Calcutta

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

A steering wheel and an Indian taxi driver's handI fantasize about cramming my wide Volvo into the gap between the traffic trailing back from the lights at Greifswalder Strasse. It’s Friday, Berlin rush hour and everyone’s waiting, teeth grinding, but not one horn hooting: a picture of stressed civilization. I wonder if it’s really civilized, let alone healthy, to sit and seethe in a traffic jam. Wouldn’t it be better to do what a Calcutta taxi driver would do? That is, to simply make the three lanes into five by squeezing your clapped-out cab into an impossibly narrow space, all the while pressing your hand on the horn.

Cars and Calcutta are inseparable. As soon as you step out of the airport or your hotel onto the street, you are on the street – there is rarely room among the street kitchen stands and people sleeping to walk on the pavement – and once you’re on the street, you’re among the traffic: rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cabs, flashy SUVs, beaten up bangers and people carrying huge baskets on their heads. (more…)

Why Wedding reminds me of London

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Man holding a pinapple in front of a market stallI had the old-fashioned idea of walking to work the other day, which takes me from Mitte along past Humboldthain Park to Gesundbrunnen and then through the heart of Wedding high street. I don’t think there are many high streets in Berlin, but Wedding certainly has one. My definition of a high street is a range of shops, and a lively atmosphere. Admittedly, the shops are mostly halal butcher’s, internet and cut-price phone centres, and bakeries but it makes a change from the retro needlework shops selling gingham girl’s dresses or homemade stuffed toys that are ubiquitous in the fashionable districts. And it made me think suddenly of London. (more…)

On cheerleaders in our midst

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Susan BasnettEvery group needs a cheerleader. And it would have been no surprise if Susan Bassnett, during her lecture to a group of literary translators at the LCB last night, had whisked out a pair of pom-poms and whirled them in front of the noses of her enthralled audience members. She seemed able to do the can-can, high five, the splits or whatever was required. When asked why I hadn’t asked her any questions at the end, I realised later that I had just wanted her to carry on talking, sounding out her sometimes poetic, sometimes political notions of what a translator’s task could be. She made everything seem possible, she made translation theory seem like fun. And her questions were so good that she pre-empted any I might have of my own:

Is a translation a copy of the ‘original’ when even writers are refuting there is such a thing?
Does a fatherless or orphan text exist?
Is there any creation without tradition?
Can tradition survive without re-invention?
How far can a translation diverge from its original and still be a translation? (more…)