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10/06/2003: "(Un)settling in Berlin"

Septermber 27, 2003

Dear Friends,

There are a lot of unemployed people in Berlin. Maybe ten percent. Including Gerry. We are subletting Gerry’s apartment in Neukolln, a part of Berlin. He was supposed to go to Sacramento to help our mutual Rik Maverik start construction on his new home and work space in an artists’ project there. Unfortunately for Rik, that whole project seems to have been postponed indefinitely. Fortunately for Gerry, he has been getting some work lately, and he is glad to have us paying his rent for three months. In the meantime, he is camping out with friends. It’s a nice flat here. We will be in it until the end of November. Then we will move again, and be happy to finally have a place of our own.

Unfortunately for us, Gerry being out of work also meant he was behind on his phone bill. Turns out so far behind that the phone company wanted a deposit of €250 (add ten percent to get dollars). So, it took us until last Tuesday, the 22nd of September to get a phone in the apartment in our own names. All of this to explain why you are getting today stuff I wrote two and four weeks ago. I had it on Gerry’s computer, but we needed a phone line to connect to the internet. Now I can send it out. I am quite sure that dealing with bureaucracies is a theme that will get more atttention in future missives. Thanks to those of you who send me notes in response. It is nice to feel connected, even thru the less than tactile internet.

Part One

Everything looks different now. It is September 2, 2003. I have started commuting. The Germans call it Pendeln. As in pendulum. Turn´s out that it´s a long ride from Neukolln to Potsdam. And a world of difference. Not that Potsdam doesn´t have foreigners, too. With the university there, there are young people from around the world. But here in Neukolln it doesn´t feel like they are just visiting. The non-Germans here in Neukolln are here to stay, transforming this into a multicultural society. Standing on the train platform at Alexanderplatz, I was more than ten minutes early for the train. The train doesn´t leave until 8:37. I can leave home by 8:15 or 8:20 and still make the connection. I will get to work about 9:20.

Everything looks different. It is a bright sunny day. The first day of school in the US. The day after Labor Day. Yesterday was not a holiday here. Here workers get celebrated on May first. The platform is full of people going to work. Headed to school. Tourists aren´t much a part of this early morning hustle. Lots of people roll their bicycles with them onto the trains.

Everything looks different. Thirty years ago Alexanderplatz was basking in the afterglow of the Tenth World Youth Festival Games. An orchestrated Woodstock moment in the old DDR. Today the Fernsehturm stands as proudly as ever, but most everything else here strives to forget its socialist realism style, and put a bit more shine or style onto its face in this new millenium. The old red brick Rathaus and the Berliner Dom – the Lutheran Catherdral – disappear on the side of the train as we pull into Friedrichstrasse. I used to cross into East Berlin here, if I didn´t walk through Checkpoint Charley from the subway at Kochstrasse.

So much continues to change. The Turks are clearly integrated into the fabric of Berlin as a new proletariat. The front page of the Berliner Zeitung has a picture from a sort of Mr. Universe Contest in Afghanistan. All these hunky Afghanis in briefs, muscles flexed. None of it has me thinking of war. As overdeveloped as their muscles may be, they look more the result of lifting weights than taking steroids.

Yesterday I arrived at the train station in Potsdam having just missed the express train by minutes. I decided to catch the S Bahn to Wannsee, just 3 stops away. I wanted to see if maybe I could hook up with a faster connection there, rather than sit a half hour on the platform until the next express. (We commuters can waste untold quarter hour segments strategizing getting there some other way.) At the top of the escalator down to the platform, an elderly woman asked me, “Where is the S-Bahn to Berlin?” Her German was correct, but her delivery sounded foreign. She was alone, dressed all in white, with white hair tucked up under her broad white hat. She pulled a carry-on bag on wheels. The escalator was not working. She called out to me as I started down the awkward steel stairs “Can you help me with my bag?” I was happy to be able to help, and left her bag at the base of the escalator. I went to find a seat in the waiting S-Bahn. The train waited a long time before leaving.
In that
time my Russian friend had rediscovered me, and taken a seat diagonally across the aisle, facing toward me. Before the doors closed and we headed to Wannsee she moved into the seat directly facing me, toe to toe, so we could talk more easily. Formal, simple German, easy to understand. Occasionally I had trouble understanding her, either she mumbled, or my hearing loss is more than I imagine.

I remember snippets. She asked me what kind of work I did. “Oh, I studied dance in America. In Miami.” “KaDeWe is not what it used to be. The windows used to display the most wonderful things. Now, well it looks like Woolworth´s.” “Where did you learn your German? What did you study? …Well if you studied biology, then you will understand my work. I did research, neurological, and then applied it to artificial intelligence, computers and such.”

Who´d have guessed such a mind from this seemingly lost/helpless older Russian woman? My prejudices show. She clearly has had a life of relative privelege, reminiscing about West-Berlin, dancing in Miami, advanced study in the US…”I went to the Free University to have someone evaluate my dissertation for the University in the US, and the man simply wrote that he was inadequately prepared to offer an opinion on my work.” “Do you suppose I could get another student ID from the University in New York? Russian agents kept mine.” “I was studying English in New Jersey. My children left and went to Flagstaff, but I stayed in New Jersey.It has been very nice talking to you. We should have spoken English. Thank you for all your help. You have been very kind and I wish you all the best.” She smiled. I took her hand and told her I was glad to have made her acquaintence. Her eyes twinkled with irises as blue as the ink of this pen, only several shades paler.

As I sat bored on the platform at Wannsee waiting for a faster train, I wished I had stayed on the S-Bahn and spoken with her longer. She was afraid she´d fail to get off at Feuerbachstrasse, not hearing the name called out. She headed off via Schöneberg and Steglitz while I got the express to Alexanderplatz. I recalled one of her first comments. “Potsdam is very confusing. It´s not well laid out. You can´t find your street or a taxi.” Today, I find myself wondering if she had some dementia. Yesterday, waiting, I thought “I am clearly not in Minneapolis.” I was thrilled with the richness surrounding this exchange, and glad to have been sought out by another Jane Matteson, another sweet old woman with rich stories.

All this was just part of the way home from work. Now the train waits at Charlottenburg, waiting to go to Bahnhof Zoo. The train from Nauen pulls in across the platform, and three chimes sound. We ease east.

A young lesbian, could be a drag king, answers her phone. “I´ve been away.” I thought maybe she was a 16 year old boy until she asked. “Is there boxing today? OK, I´ll see you there.” There are eight bicycles parked in front of me. Two bikers remove theirs from the pack and centimeter their way to the door. We are at Bahnhof Zoo. Two more stops and I switch to the subway part of my commute. Today I have taken a side trip to Babelsberg to get the rest of my things. Stuff I left there in June. Now, in Neukolln, all of my worldly belongings will be in one apartment, with all of Mauricio´s. Here we are, making a life together. This side trip included a tram, a bus, the S-Bahn, and then my regular train and subway. I will be glad to be home. Even after climbing up four flights of stairs with this big bag, and two small ones. Rolling through the Hansaviertel, I know I will be home soon. I hope Mauricio has cooked something.

Part two

September 11, 2003

Last year I prepared myself for this date. I knew I would be surrounded by a media blitz, and many commemorations that would only make me feel more isolated, so with other artists I created an event to commemorate the events of September 11th, and the tragedy of the United States government´s response to those events. Frozen Tears floated silently, peacefully down the Mississippi River. Somewhere around a thousand people came to release them in silence, happy to be with kindred souls that night.

This year, on this date, I am not in the USA. Here in Germany I have to look for information related to two years ago. There was a hint last night on BBC’s The World. Funny how, when I would listen in the US, The World on BBC seemed like a news source that was objective, sometimes critical of the US. Here, now, it seems less critical, and I am aware of how aligned US and UK policies are, and how that makes the point of view from England less ``removed, objective, critical´´, what word should I use here?

I did come across things about September 11th today. On Yahoo the opening page was full of 9/11 options to click to. It distracted from getting my e mail, sort of like reading a cereal box can occupy time spent chewing breakfast. I chose to just get my e mail. And there was last night’s BBC promise of coverage of 9/11 today from around theUS, “including Iowa, in the rural midwest.”

Today, I also remember last year, and two years ago, and 30 years ago. I am in Berlin, where I was thrity years ago. Thirty years ago, Salvador Allende was assassinated. I wonder how much attention this gets in the US media. I remember the huge protests that followed in front of the Student Union at the Free University here. If you asked anyone on the street in Berlin who did it, (then or now) you would be told, the CIA. I am sure some people in the US today would tell you the same. But thirty years ago, I remember writing letters to high school friends, then in college. I was angry and distressed that our government was responsible for the murder of a democratically elected president of another country. Letters came back to me from places like St. Peter, Minnesota, from bright people, wondering why I thought the CIA had anything to do with what happened in Chile.

In Germany in 1973, even the mainstream press acknowledged the CIA´s role. The cognitive dissonance I experienced, between the reactions here and in the US, was enormous. I realized that what I had been taught to believe, about America and its support for democracy around the world, was another Santa Claus. Only an unending stream of new children keeps Santa believable. I wonder how we as Americans can grow pout of our political perpetual childhood, into responsibility, maturity in the world.

Today around Berlin I see flyers for concerts around town, commemorating the tragedy of 30 years ago. Clearly, what happened two years ago is also a tragedy. But it is harder to be moved by this tragedy when the leaders of the United States continue to visit so much violence on others. Would that they were shaping the role of the US in the world to bring more peace and justice to the planet, and less violence.

I remember hearing a newscast, in Minneapolis, on The World on the night of September 10th, 2001. The report was about Henry Kissinger being brought to trial in the US, for his involvement in the death of one of Chile´s generals in 1973. In the extended aftermath following the events of the next day, I never heard any follow up. Something must have happened to that trial.

Part Three

Catherine Jordan asked me to keep folks posted on what can be done, so that I could live in Minneapolis with Mauricio. I heard back from both Martin Sabo and Mark Dayton that they were cosponsoring the Permanent Partners Immigration Bill. We need to get the Senator Coleman and rest of the Minnesota delegation to Washington on board. Some may already be. Call them and ask. It is just a law. It could be passed.

For more info on it go to http://www.hrc.org/issues/federal_leg/ppia/quickfacts.asp

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