This is the reason we live in Berlin, I said this morning, sat in the warm light of the early morning on a cold wooden bench. Watching the village square awake, a village square in the middle of a city of millions, we entered conversations Cara and I, about the new books we had bought and how to understand dialect. As sparrows took agile trajectories between the tree trunks and rows of bicycles, everywhere the tall six-storey houses emptied their occupants into the platz, a fading beige rectangle of sand and dry grass. The people of this morning crossed the grass, or skirted its edges next to the tired trees, exhausted by the sun already, and moved out towards the day. Waiting in the wings were the middayers, the parents lulling children and the dozy alcoholics. Cara and I sat at the backerei, neither with child or drunk, ate fresh bread and slowly sipped at long, strong coffees.
The accumulation of language is a slow process, made faster in gradients by a return to previous modes of learning. Hours of absorption, some ten years ago, took place in a tiny room, big enough for a bunk bed for me and my brother and a desk and television. He was six, I was seventeen. Those days, where learning entailed a return to forests of notes written in coloured biro ink, were seemingly endless. The days seemed held in amber, as though the beginning of yesterday and the end of tomorrow were moving in the same directions.
Hot, long summers dominate my distant recalls of each year so that it feels as though our friends, for two or three years, experienced no winters. Days and nights are remembered now, as are country roads beneath quilts of stars. These were the times, lounging in fields on our backs, inhaling every musical anomaly possible, romancing the wrong people at the right time, these were times of learning. Pages of knowledge were bought along with hours lost. Each day I returned to books and more, making charts of dim progress and desperately striving to sculpt an invisible future from those materials I could sense were close to hand.
Now we sit in our kitchen, Cara and I, the window gently moving back and forth in an imaginary wind, heat pouring over the sill, trying once more to learn, trying to return to a time that we once felt we would never escape. Or rather it would never, in our naivety, escape us. Lest we forget, a decade has passed.
Cara’s dictionary is worse for wear after two months here, full of grit and wine stains. Progress has been slow, for me at least. Last summer in France, amongst naturalised French and those fluent from good schooling, I found it many times easier to follow a conversation. French is more literal too, German requires a keener sense of the mischievous acts of language. To recognise those turns of sentence which give you the slip at every corner is something of a game.
We play our own games, linking words - their declensions, articles and conjugations – to our own imaginary worlds, our readily drafted and sketched aide-mémoire that bears no relation to the world or the words within it, but rather to our relationship with each other, a friendship borne upon its own parameters, one that tests and corrects beyond those daily occurrences of laughter and argument.
Presence in the world has been more difficult here, both for want of a communal language and for a certain selfish disclipline. I am in the mindset to buy newspapers, dismayed by the British web media, in German – both for news, a false neutrality, an interest in angle and a sense of what is beginning in the world. Slow news in the UK, it seems. The front pages are dominated by headless denunciations of credit crunching, sending all into spirals of justifiable worry, and political volleys back and forth.
Of course today the world media, while the UK papers were slow on the uptake, is more preoccupied with one of the first inevitabilities of the latter part of this decade. Russia and her fringes, those distant allies and distrustors, have taken longer than expected to clash over borders. This latest conflict with Georgia, initiated through third party separatists, is - as always, can one say? - the fault of a bigger apparatus than people’s identities. Iraq In Fragments, James Longley’s distilled documentary on lives post-invasion, tells three stories of a divided nation and I have carried the images with me these past few days.
That definite sense of bypass within acts occurring overhead (so obvious so as not to be seen) is repeated constantly in conflict. Standing beneath; populations of men and women, who know of name changes, and administration shifts. The queues begin in different places, agencies work on alternate days and ballot sheets contain altered names while the everyday continues, short on resource. But, what do I know? Surely I cannot write of such things, this is a joke. But I am told it is simple, that I can know. The international community’s lack of communication and unification around ideas upon the emergence of small nations has led, not without warning, to misunderstood and misrepresented identities. Some, such as South Ossestia, are being sought as ready-made examples.
My work this weekend is in this field, moving towards international consensus, ideas of democracy and social engagement driven forward by the internet, an investigation into the nodes and bridges that cross China’s closed information borders, and a excursion towards uncovering the voices of the grounded.