Letters From Berlin

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03/11/2004: "Having Guests"

Having guests come to Berlin puts me in a great mood. Maybe because I love to play host, (that was my favorite part of the job for 15 years at the cabaret) maybe because of the isolation I feel here, a newcomer in a big city. Probably because of both. Still, like most people, I do special things when guests come from out of town, and this past week I have had a total of 6 guests.
Saturday night we went to see “Marlene, in Search of a Soul”. Miguel Levin grew up in Buenas Aires, but somehow managed to make his way to Berlin, where he was now starring as the legend. Was he a drag queen from Argentina, or an actor, or had he reincarnated as the star of the Blue Angel? All I knew for sure was, here he was in the heart of what had been West Berlin, Tiergarten. Tiergarten is Berlin’s Central Park. It stretches from the zoo (with its eponymous train station) to the Brandenburg Gate, and the trains course along its northern edge. To get to Miguel (a Sephardic Jew playing Dietrich?)we got out of the S Bahn and walked down the dark Flensburgerstrasse to number 11. Bellevue, a tiny cabaret.
Down the steps into the bar, we bought our tickets. Plenty early, we were the first ones to arrive for the show. Down five more steps from the side of the bar there was a small room where we waited, I drank a Hefewiezen. The bartender was glad to have eight customers this early for the show.
Kirsten came back from the restroom very excited. “It is so cool, you have to check it out!” I finished my beer, and headed up the stairs and around the corner to the restrooms. There I found three doors on one wall. All brightly painted, with broad strokes. One door featured outlines of a body which clearly had female breasts and female genitals. Another door had a male chest with male genitals, and a third door had female breasts with male genitals. I could not help but think of all the times I spoke with the audience at my own cabaret about how absurd Minneapolis’ codes are on bathrooms, that there are more than two genders. Here was a cabaret that embraced that. I knew I ws somewhere where I belonged.
As I peed, I could hear the trains rolling by, from Bahnhof Zoo to Friedrichstrasse and then to Alexanderplatz. Just outside the window in front of me. I thought of how this rumble of trains has been part of the rhythm of this neighborhood, and this city, for over a century. I thought, “Marlene knows these trains, has ridden them, knows their routes, their connections and their rumbles.”
I went back to my crowd in the cozy anteroom, and then we made our way into the theater. The grand piano took up a quarter of the room, there was seating for maybe 25, max 30. Miguel played the diva, played her as the old woman, long past her prime, remembering back. His hair was as jet black as hers was always blonde. Still, somehow the shape of the hair was the same, and the black clothes, whichever outfit he changed into, were always right. The way he held his body was right, even when his shape wasn’t.
When he stopped part way into the intro of Lili Marlene, and insisted instead the German version of “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” I finally understood why she sang this song. Marlene covering Joanie Mitchell had never made sense to me before. Now it was a powerful anti-war statement. The whole night was a kind of perfect intro to Berlin for my 6 guests.
The next night we headed to a different show. An hommage to Jacques Brel. A French chanteur who I know little about. But I knew the venue. Bar jeder Vernunft. (The Common Sense Bar) A tiny old circus tent, turned into a stage. It feels like a carousel, and is one of the most special places I have found in Berlin. Gas lamps heat the lobby. The maitre d tried to seat us behind the piano, we insisted we could get our own drinks, if we could sit on the stools in the back row. They were great seats. The band was piano, bass and accordeon. The singer had enormous presence, I understood almost none of the French, and he only sang. He didn’t even speak intros to the songs. But, when he sang, he was as physical as Jerry Lewis, and as energetic and gestural. By the end of the show, I still enjoyed watching him (he was incredibly handsome) though I felt like I knew his repertoire of gestures.
Kirsten, one of my guests, was researching Dietrich and Piaf, so to round out her visit, two nights later we went to see a stage production of “Piaf”. (Marlene has a small part in the show, and she personally detested the script. Kirsten had just read this that afternoon in the Dietrich archives). The actress playing Piaf had a great voice, and the men who played her lovers were each more handsome than the next. I only wish that rather than having each of the three men play several roles, they had had a cast with as many good looking men as Piaf had had lovers in her life.
We took the subway back to my neighborhood after Piaf, a part of the city that has been a gay neighborhood for a hundred years. I had a cup of the best hot chocolate in town at Tim’s Canadian Deli, and sent my guests home to their comfy temporary residence in Berlin, an apartment on Innsbruckerplatz.

I am only in Berlin, and available as your tour guide, until May 3. Check with Northwest and Icelandic for cheap flights. Caveat: As a European worker, I am taking some of my ample vacation before I return to Minneapolis. March 28 until April 7th I will be in Spain. April 16-22 in Norway. That doesn’t leave you a lot of open dates. Call now, operators are waiting. Or call me direct
011 49 30 6273 4054 at home
011 49 331 280 0314 at work
122 49 178 913 0903 cell phone.

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