The sun is slowly creeping from behind the houses as the train comes in. You get out and follow the signs. Everything is in German, so you're not mistaken. This is Berlin. It feels like any other city, but don't let appearances fool you. There is no other city in the world like this one. May be the railway station is a giveaway. It is a little bit more rundown than most other railway stations in Germany. That is because the railways are run by the East Germans. At the end of the war, the allies felt is was much easier to let the Russians run all transportation in the city and nothing has changed since.

The whole city is an anxiously maintained status quo. It is still under military rule, although there is a mayor and a city council. But all their decisions have to be confirmed by the military authority. Members of the occupational forces can ask for your ID anytime and arrest you for no reason. Any newspaper can be taken out of circulation without notice. But usually they don't exercise these rights. Usually..

There is a wall around this city. It was not designed to keep people in, but to keep people out. A reversed prison. Built overnight on a Sunday in 1961. It has cost so much in the meanwhile that if its builders had used their funds differently, they could easily have put a man on the moon first.

The wall is where the city stops. Where roads stop, railways stop, people stop. It is a nomansland that can be entered by accident, for instance when you're taking a city train. There is a railway station that lies on East German soil, but can only be used by Westberliners. There are streets that are part of Westberlin, but the quay or the sidewalk is East German. If they want to, East German border guards can arrest you.

On the other hand, the Westberlin police doesn't have any jurisdiction there. So if you ever get in trouble, get to the nearest wall. The wall isn't actually built right on the border, but a few feet behind. So with your back against the wall, there is nothing they can do. They have to call the military police that is in charge of that specific sector. The military can go wherever they want. Even to East Berlin. They can move freely across the entire city without any formalities. By the way, so can the Russians.

You can easily get a hotel for $20 in the center of town. Actually, it isn't the center of town. All the signs that show you where the center of town is just get you to the border. The center of town is on the other side. Still, it is the right place to be. It's where the bars and the discotheques are located. Where the action is. Where the whores are standing at night near the show cases, like they're are just another item you can buy.

This is a strange city. It is an island in the land, a place where no compass does work, cause you'll always end up in the East, whichever direction you take. It's a capital without a country, a city under a glass cover. A place where the absurd has become normal, and the normal has become absurd. Crime rates are extremely low, well below the West German average. If you get robbed of $20 you're sure of a place in the local newspaper.

The people that live here are different too. Strong, crude and with a bitter sense of humor. Even the women. You'll find a lot of hills in Berlin, but these are not natural hills. They consist of rubble that was collected and piled up by hand after the war had ended and the devastating bombing had stopped. The city was almost devoid of men at that time, so the women took care of that. They still take care. Of themselves and of you, if need be. But first of all of themselves.

Those who are here chose to be here. Some of them were born here and just stayed. Others came here for a weekend and stayed. Some came because no one else wanted to come and stayed. Berlin has got the second largest Turkish community in the world, even if you take Turkey itself into account. But some are here for a reason. Sometimes because German law is a bit different here. You can't get drafted, for instance, so if you're German and want to study, why not do it here.

Some come here to heal. It is a city that hosts those who don't fit in anywhere else and makes them feel special and welcome. Transvestites, homosexuals, artists, punks, fascists. Those who are in need for a place that is even crazier than they are. Kafka would have loved this city.

You've left the railway station and the sun is starting to smile. You look at the clock of a church that has stopped being a church, so they built another one beside it. It's still early in the morning, but you know a bar that is still open. Bars and discotheques can be open whenever they want, 24 hours a day. That may not seem out of the ordinary for an American, but here in Germany it is quite unusual. Another advantage of being under military rule.

A man is sitting on the sidewalk. He's pretty drunk or stoned, you can't tell. You recognize him. It's Herman Brood, a Dutch rock singer and known drug addict who was married to Nina Hagen for a few weeks. She grew up in East Berlin, being the daughter of a wellknown folksinger and an equally wellknown actress. Her father was thrown out of East Germany ten years ago, because the party didn't quite like his songs. She followed him a few years later, cause she was not considered to be "a good example for the GDR youth". Too bad for a girl who earned her first fame with the hitsingle "You forgot the colorfilm".

It's not unusual to meet a celebrity like this. It is the eighties and everyone is flocking together in this city. You might just as easily meet David Bowie at "Romy Haag", a trendy transvestite bar, owned by a Dutch transsexual from the Hague. Or rub shoulders with Nick Cave in "Dschungel". They're all here.

You get in and ask for a coffee. The bartender tells you in a loud voice that he is closing up. You yell back at him. It's not hard to get mad, cause you've had a long trip and you're dead tired. Just when you're about to leave, he winks you and tells you to sit down. If you don't mind that your chair will be the last one that is put on top of the table, you can stay. He offers you a cigarette and thank him without making a sound. You're finally there. Home. Home is where you sit right now, this old brown wooden table in a bar that is closing up.

The bartender brings you your coffee. Breakfast, he tells you. Breakfast it is. There are even cafes in Berlin where you can order a breakfast like this, like "Fantom". It's called "The existentialist", after Jean Paul Sartre. You can also ask for a "Morning After Pill" over there, which is black coffee and an aspirin. You smile and no one seems to notice. You love this city. It's like returning to the arms of a familiar lover. She doesn't ask where you've been, because that hardly matters. She doesn't ask you when you're going, cause you're here. You're just madly making love to her like there is no morning.

You've finished your coffee and reach for your wallet, but the bartender mumbles cause he doesn't want your money. He was having a coffee anyway. You stick up you hand and greet him, but there is no answer. When you get outside, Herman is still there. There is a lot of traffic on the street now. Germans start work early. Sometimes as early as seven in the morning. All you want right now is a bed. You want it all for yourself. No need to share it. That is for another night.

The singles in Berlin say that the hardest part of being a single in Berlin is staying a single. Its very easy to make friends here. Even if you don't speak the language. If Berliners can't make themselves understood by words, they use their hands, their faces, even their legs if need be. You were like that once. Speaking only Dutch, a little bit of English and a few words of German you learned at school. You met a girl. The right girl at the wrong time in the wrong place. She taught you German and laughed when she learned that you picked up "Berlinerisch" instead.

You still remember, standing on her balcony at Leninplatz 28, looking down on the bold crown of a giant granite statue of Lenin. You just made love and it is getting late. In a few hours you have to return to Westberlin, because your visa is only valid until midnight. She brings you to the border, kisses you and patiently waits for you to return.

At the border, you are not alone. The checkpoint is nicknamed "The Palace of Tears" and for good reason. Dozens of people are saying their goodbyes here and some of them are crying. But you have no intention to return to Westberlin. As soon as you check out, you apply for another visa. Officially, you'll have to wait until seven in the morning, but sometimes you are lucky.

She's still there. She smiles, because you made it. You say they made you pay ten bucks to spend the night with her. She smiles, because she knows what you are talking about. You have to exchange 25 good West German Marks for 25 worthless East German Marks. If you don't spend them, you either have to throw them away or place them on an East German account. Hardly anybody does that. It's such a hassle and it won't free you from the obligation to exchange another 25 DM the next time you return.

She's picked up a "Schwarz Taxi" while she was waiting. It's very hard to get a cab in East Berlin since there are so very few of them. Sometimes there are fifty people waiting at a taxistand and every ten minutes a single cab comes by. She opens up the door and you get in. It is just a private car, so there is no meter. The fare is a matter of negotiation. She's much better at that than you. It doesn't matter. She always takes care of you.

She turns on the light as she gets in. You take a casual look at your watch and see that the whole procedure has taken one and a half hour. Well, it could be worse. You could have been out there, alone, invited by the whores while you're trying to make it to your hotel. She opens up a bottle of cheap East German wine and pours you a glass. She doesn't turn on the TV, but puts on an old record of Leonard Cohen instead. She asks you if you can bring another one. It's an East German release, but records like this are only available for a few weeks and can not be backordered. Sure, you say. As she undresses she starts to giggle. You ask what is so funny and she answers that a couple on the other side of the street is making out and didn't close the curtains.

She's already sleeping, holding you tight. Your fingers play with her long blonde hair. In a few weeks you won't be here anymore. You wonder whether you were here at all. Was it just a dream. Can a place like this really be. Holds the darkness that you are about to receive more truth than this awakening. Where will you be when you wake up. What will you see when you open up your eyes again. A smile. A hotelroom. The familiar ceiling of your own bedroom. The comforting scent of her body lures you into the dream.

She sits on the side of the bed. Watches you for hours. 'You sleep so beautifully' she says. You wonder what is so beautiful about a man sleeping and visiting his dreams under the covers of darkness.

You wish you could sleep like that again, but you know you've left paradise a long time ago. Even an angel couldn't hold you there. There is a change in the air. You feel it coming like a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon. This city has a soul, it mesmerized you the first time you laid eyes on it. But you feel it is drained, dissipating into the void.

When you enter to your hotel, everything seems the same. You briefly glance at the calendar over the counter. It's the ninth of November.

Hans Bezemer


September 2001


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