Letters From Berlin

People watching

I see the Aquarium from my bike as I commute from Berlin to Potsdam. It is part of the Zoo, which lends its name to the station where I lock my bike and catch the train to work. Before I say goodbye to Berlin May 3rd, I plan to visit the zoo to see the monkeys, and go to the aquarium. A couple of the things on my mental to-do checklist.
A visit to the human aquarium was also on the list. So, Tuesday night I went. It’s actually a public swimming pool. The building that houses it must be about a hundred years old, and architecturally, it is a gem. The Germans call the style Jugendstil, in English it’s Art Nouveau. The place is light, pretty, and full of charming frescoes. There is a new public pool right next door, but I have only ever gone to this pool, the old one.
I went there Tuesday night for old time’s sake. I wanted to see it again, and to see if things had changed much. The price has gone up. It costs four euros to swim. It used to be half that.
Other than that, things are pretty much the same. The pool still has a stainless steel liner, that gleams with the swirl pattern of the polished metal. The water is a cool, calming, darkened blue. The color seems natural, until I think about it. Water in a stainless steel kitchen sink is not blue. Either the bottom of the pool is tinted dark blue, or the water itself has some blue coloring in it. Still, I like how the stainless steel liner fits the architectural style.
When I was in Berlin in 1992, Monday night was naked swim night here. Now Tuesday and Friday nights are naked. I paid my four euros, and went in. There are separate changing rooms and showers for men and women, but then everyone emerges naked to the pool. Butt naked in the water, it seems to me like an aquarium, full of human beings. Every body looks better in the water. No matter whether trim or chubby or neither, the water embraces and supports, and our species looks better in water.
Some of us are not actually naked, we wear goggles. Somehow, they do not disqualify one from being naked. Underwater I see better with goggles, and I love the view of all these bodies in blue water in stainless steel in a Jugendstil building. There should be a window for all the animals in the zoo to come by to look at us. It is the only pool where I have ever seen swimmers just drift to the bottom of the pool to gaze at the other swimmers. Others move like otters through the water, observing other bodies as they pass by. Unlike most pool swimming, this looking is to see for the sake of seeing, not just for the practical matter of not colliding.
In a culture like this, where nudity is more common, I take this looking to be really about enjoying the naked human form. I get to be naked, and I get to be around naked people. Still, the men outnumbered the women about eight to one. There has to be a reason for this. There were only two women there. One was about thirty, with an athletic figure, and long dark hair, looking much like the Greek actress who lit the Olympic flame yesterday. The other was much stockier and probably more my age, 50, and churned as she moved through the water. Side by side, they seemed like a wringer washer and a dolphin. Both familiar with water, but very different energies.
The men were a curious lot. Mostly working class and over forty, no GQ models, no pretty boys, no athletes. Probably mostly homosexual, but probably not openly gay. Maybe a couple times a month these guys come here to shed all, be surrounded by and have a look at a few other naked blokes. There is no naked swim night here during summer months. From May on it is warm enough to take advantage of being naked in the meadows in the local parks. During the rest of the year, there is FKK (Freie Körperliche Kulture - free body culture) night here at the pool in Krummestrasse (crooked street).

I leave for ten days in Spain on Sunday morning. In mid-April I go to Norway for a week. Both countries I have never seen. My time living in Europe dwindles. As always, sand is passing through the hourglass. These days, listening carefully, I hear it.

pscully on 03.26.04 @ 04:11 PM CET [link]

Thursday, March 11th

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.

pscully on 03.11.04 @ 04:47 PM CET [link]

Friday, March 5th

Inspiration from Angels

Last night I went to Xenon, a movie theater, to see “Before Night Falls”. Xenon shows a lot of films with gay content. Most recently I had seen Yossi and Jagger there; a film about two Israeli soldiers, their lives and love. Before I had seen a documentary film there about the isolation of gay men in rural Germany. Its easy to get to Xenon from where I live. Down the steps and around the corner, up Nollendorfstrasse, past the building where Christopher Isherwood lived when he wrote his Berlin Stories, to the bus stop. Get on the #187, pass what used to be Anderes Ufer (Other Shore). It is still a gay coffeeshop, but it now has a different name, and is no longer the Café Wyrd of Berlin as it once was. One stop later get off and around the corner to Xenon. Mass transit in Berlin is so good.
I had seen part of this film at the Uptown, but for some reason came late and had to leave early. This time it was great to see it in Spanish with German subtitles, and see the whole thing. When there wasn’t a lot of background sound I could understand most of the Spanish from my Portuguese. Reinaldo Arenas’ story (Before Night Falls is his autobiography) reminds me a lot of my friend Rene, who use to live in Minneapolis. Rene came to the US on the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He had been a student at the university, studying architecture, until he was kicked out for being gay. Then he got a job in the sugar industry, until they came to tell him that sugar was too vital to Cuban national security to risk having a homosexual work in it. Finally they came to tell him to go to Mariel, where he got on a boat, like thousands of other unwanted Cubans, including Arenas, to sail to Miami. Rene ended up in Minneapolis, and became lovers with Bruce Brockway, the first man to die of AIDS in Minnesota. Reinaldo ended up in New York, where he died of AIDS.
Like me, Rene is still alive. The film got me thinking about AIDS and my legacy, which I see from two sides. One side is work I have created on this theme. The other side is work created by other artists who had AIDS and are no longer with me physically. Next fall will mark twenty years that I have known that I am HIV positive. I plan to do a show to mark these two decades. Watching the film, I got inspired to create a performance/installation collage for the anniversary: I would create new work, and remount some things I have done before. I would commission artists to remount work created by people like Poonie Dodson, David Lindahl, Chasen Gaver, Bill Harren, Jack Gidone, Hector Teo… (artists I have known who have died of AIDS), or new work inspired by their creations. I would invite other artists living with HIV to create work. I started to imagine the Southern Theater without any seats, using the mainstage, the stage behind the proscenium, the lobby, the upper lobby, the greenroom, the sidewalk in front, the open area outside - off the ememrgency exit…My mind started to race. Different scenes would happen simultaneously, the audience would have to choose where to go. It would be impossible to see everything, returning a second time it would be highly unlikely to have even close to the same experience as the first time.
I remembered shows where I swung wildly on ropes with David Lindahl while Diamanda Galas screamed Leviticus verse. Remembered lying under dirt and sod, waiting to sit up and announce “I am not dead yet.” Remembered showing “Too Soon Lost” for the first time before several hundered at an Arts Over AIDS confernece in the Guthrie Lab before a keynote speech by my good friend John Killacky. Remembered creating that piece on a bitter cold December night in my 24th street storefront apartment, in the days before I built the inner wall of glass. Rembembered shows by David, Chasen, Asotto and Eric and so many others who now sit on my shoulder lightly and say clearly, “Patrick, you are here for a reason. You must continue to do our work.”
I thought of performances and spaces I have seen here these months in Berlin that have inspired me. Especially dance works that have broken open boxes and crossed disciplines. “Insideout” by Sascha Waltz and “d’avant” by a group of 4 men who sang as beautifully as they danced. I realized I have been subconsciously working this whole time on a big new show.
Waiting for the bus home, I again noticed the odd line of the buildings across the street. Some were three stories high, and down at the heels. Others were the standard 6 stories, and quite beautiful. And in between was a single story commercial storefront, feeling like a temporary filling from the dentist. It then occurred to me that this odd set of teeth was likely the result of bombs that fell in World War Two. Nina Simone crooned “Everything Must Change” in my imagination, just as she had on my cd player on the way to work in the morning.

pscully on 03.05.04 @ 04:11 PM CET [link]

March 2004
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