Lake Swimming in Berlin

My love affair with Germany began when I was about twelve. As is often the case with most young people, I hated everything about school. The only class I liked was Art, because we were allowed to plug our music in and create youthfully pretentious masterpieces while being serenaded by The Offspring.

In accordance with all English secondary schools, we also had to be put through French. I hated French from the very first minute. I hated struggling through the pronunciation, the useless, silent sounds, and the awful textbooks. However, in our second year, we were required to take another language. In contrast to French, German was a dream. There was logic in the grammar. It was easier to remember. The pronunciation was titter-inducing, and in comparison to French, relatively fun.

That is not to say I was any good, or that I even enjoyed it. German, like any other subject, was mostly a necessary evil. However, there were moments. While learning about the seasons, I remember the teacher (I disliked her immensely, but I can’t remember why) wrote a bonus sentence on the board for us to translate – “Im Winter trage Ich meine neue Jacke.” I was the only one in the class who knew what it meant. I was a genius! Granted, the school would be shut down years later for underperformance and below-average grades, but in that moment, I felt like I was on the right track.

I was fifteen when I had my next German moment of enlightenment. By then I had joined the masses of British kids seeking individuality – basically, hanging out with the goths and grungers. This was 2001, and emos as we know them today hadn’t been invented yet. We just wore embarrassing black shit and drank cheap cider in parks. Like thousands of other young individuals across the country, we also read Kerrang! Magazine. We would spend hours gawping at pictures of black-clad musicians, deciding whose looks to copy so that we could express our individuality more effectively. I can only recall a few of these bands’ names now, but I do know I had to force myself to listen to most of their horrible songs.

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Being authentic was hard.

Kerrang! also occasionally included free DVDs and music CD samples so that we cretins could decide what to be obsessed with next. On one of these DVDs was a music video by Rammstein, the likes of which I had never seen or heard before. The video was a dark reenactment of Snow White, and six big men were the dwarves. The music was metal, yes, but it had a rhythmic, almost machine-like precision in its execution, occasionally dipping into electronics and wistful opera. And the lyrics were unashamedly all in German.

My fascination quickly became an obsession. The band conjured up images of unabashed masculinity, in deep contrast to my friends’ interest in the effeminate likes of Placebo and Queen. The lead singer, Till Lindemann, was brutishly male, large, muscled, and burly, with a snarling roll to his R’s that only his native tongue could allow. He swung from soft crooning to a deep baritone. He quickly replaced all my other favourite famous people. I saw the group live (twice in fact), and felt the heat on my face from the stupendous onstage pyrotechnics. I used fansites to piece together some background information on the band’s GDR history (Wikipedia was still in its early days then). German classes took on a new meaning. I even found I could sing along to some of the lyrics, even if I didn’t know exactly what Till was saying.

A-Levels came around, and by this time I had decided I wanted to be the next Tarantino, Scorsese, or similar. When tasked with writing an excerpt of a screenplay, I immediately knew what I wanted to write. I wrote an extract about a disillusioned young man trapped in the 1980S GDR, shortly before the Wall’s demise. His imminent downfall into alcoholism is cut short by an encounter with an opposition leader, and soon he’s out protesting, rallying, and helping his new mentor dig a tunnel under the wall. It wasn’t great, by all means, but I loved reading up on the GDR. Also, I got my A, which was the important thing. I hadn’t seen Goodbye Lenin! yet, but when I finally did, it fast became my Number One.

Skip forward to the final year of university, where I specialised (majored? Do we ‘major’ in the UK?) in German Cinema. I learned about Heimat, Tom Tykwer’s themes of destiny and chance, and a great deal of Ostalgie. This time, I liked my German teacher. She was awesome. She had a lovely accent, and she loved film. She asked if she could get my work published. I don’t think she did in the end, but it was nice to be asked.

I lived in Japan for six years after graduating, and while I went through the usual ‘fitting in’ tedium of Japanese language classes and dutifully scratching out kanji, the joy just wasn’t there. While sitting in coffeeshops with my Genki textbook, I soon came to realise that learning a language out of necessity just wasn’t for me. I kept it up for the sake of appearances, but I also bought a German language course. I found myself straying to the Deutsch books more often than not.

Upon returning to the UK, I hit the German quite hard. Every day for several months, I sat and learned German as I never could with Japanese. Without pressure, there is a joy in learning. That’s just my way. As soon as something becomes an obligation, the desire dies.

All this, and I had never set foot in Germany. Until last Thursday.

Finding myself with a couple of weeks to spare before starting my new job, I decided it was time to visit the Fatherland. Upon checking into my hotel in Berlin, I wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner.

Along with Checkpoint Charlie, Stasi HQ, and the DDR Museum, the first thing I wanted to do was swim in a lake. This, as I understood, was a regular summer pastime for Germany’s cityfolk. Unlike us poor Londoners, Berlin residents can hop on a train and arrive at the beautiful lake areas of Wannsee in under an hour. Having spent my summer pitifully looking for a new job while everyone else swanned off to Greece, Spain, and other sunny climes, I was determined to have some sort of watery summer experience.

Schlachtensee wasn’t so crowded, as it was a Friday. As the late summer sun scorched down, I walked through the cool forest alongside the shimmering blue. I was able to find a good spot on the water’s edge, and after much deliberation, waded in. The silt rose up, and I disturbed a couple of little fish investigating my ankle. It was cold – very cold. As I went further out, the sun dyed the clear water a fascinating, effervescent green, like a Perrier bottle. Not a soul was in sight, but I could hear some German shrieks of delight from across the lake. As I lolled on my back, staring up at the cloudless sky, I heard someone shout. Three young men had gathered at the bank. They asked me if the water was cold. “Ja,” I shouted.

As I towelled myself, I marvelled at how clean I felt. Better than any seawater.

One of the young men sidled up and stared pensively at the water. “Ich habe Angst,” he said quietly.

“Nein, nein, es ist schön,” I reassured him. Because it was.

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Homecoming

Back to the old homestead

I bump into you

The last time we saw each other

We were ready to embrace the new

 

Your eyes on a spot behind me

Waiting for someone else

You detach yourself for a moment

And enquire as to my health

 

I’ve been about, I say

Gone from here to there

Tried some new things, now back to the old

Then meet your horrified stare

 

You raise eyebrows you’ve spent hours

On looking like you’ve left alone

And say, Oh, but how

Will you ever afford a home

 

You went your way I went mine

There is no right or wrong

There’s more than one way to live a life

We can climb or drift along

 

You’ve met all the celebrities

You’ve rubbed shoulders with the stars

But I’ve talked with children

About how we can live on Mars

 

You’ve never floated down the river

In a state of play

Waving to Japanese fishermen

Passing the time of day

 

Your experiences aren’t better than mine

And mine aren’t better than yours

We were both in the same building

We just left through different doors.


I have mixed views on poetry. Anyway, the urge struck me after reflecting on how people established in their fields react when I say I’ve been abroad for a long spell. Often, they express admiration, but other times it’s akin to pity. If we all went down the same paths, life would be awfully dull.

 

What We Don’t See

Her red dress means she's angry.

Her red dress means she’s angry.

I thought it was only in Tokyo that the sheer volume of commuters packs you in until you are unable to breathe. In London, it’ll be different.

I’m wrong. The crowd shifts around me, like an ever-shuffling sea. I feel my feet slightly lift off the floor. The mob unwittingly carries me from Ravenscourt Park to Hammersmith, where they stream out, pausing to exhale. The next deep breath will be expelled before entering the doors of offices, schools, hospitals, shops.

Seats flash their primary colours for only an instant before being smothered by Primark, Gap, the occasional Levis. It’s a dog eat dog world.

I stand directly before a ridiculously handsome man. There is a hint of the Mediterranean around his brow, nose, and jawline. His hair curls around his ears. The woman seated next to him seems immune to his beauty, and taps away at Apple’s latest.

To my right, the doors scream open. A voice – “Could you be more careful? I’m heavily pregnant and trying to get off!” Necks crane at the promise of an altercation. The handsome man doesn’t look up from his novel.

Blood is in the air. “Get off then, you silly cow!” A sudden motion from the corner of my eye as someone falls, or is pushed, from the carriage. We all stare at the offender, a small man with a beard and small round glasses. He looks like a professor. We all hate him now. A lady, her face flushed with indignation, makes slowly for the exit. Her stomach is swollen, her breathing is heavy.

We continue to glare at the professor as we continue on our way, but we turn our faces back to our gadgets when he glances our way, flustered.

Were there such attacks on the Yamanote Line, as we sped from one prefab station to another? I can’t remember at first, then a memory stirs.

A man in the white shirt, black trousers uniform of the salaried worker, skulking away from me. There is blood coming from his nose, and his hand is clapped to it. He tries to look nonchalant. Nobody notices, or everybody pretends that they haven’t noticed.

I made that blood come from that nose. I made it appear by cracking my fist solidly against it.

In Japan, you can see posters in public areas that read ‘Beware of the Perverts.’ I had been leaning against a post at Ikebukuro station when I felt the hand on my behind. I had tutted and moved away – a rather insignificant action that didn’t credit the indiscretion that had taken place. When the man decided to move in for another try, it dawned on me that a stronger reaction was appropriate.

The punch had not been a satisfying one – more of a squish than a crunch. Had he not turned so suddenly, I would have tried for a second shot.

Even afterwards, I justified to myself that I shouldn’t have been groped, because I was only wearing a baggy T shirt and jeans – hardly the stuff titillation is made of. Such is the mindset of the jaded commuter in Tokyo, too absorbed in thoughts of the next day’s tasks and the latest romantic developments to comprehend that a gross indignity has taken place. It was only later that disquiet set in. Had it been my sister, would I have been so unconcerned that no one had done anything while she was manhandled by a stranger?

The wheels of change were already in the air when I left Japan – the cartoonish pervert signs were slowly replaced by a graphic of an angry woman in an even angrier red dress, her pixilated face twisted in rage. The subject of her ire, a shadowed baddie with lascivious intent, received the glares of surrounding commuters. Times were changing.

Back on the London train, the slight professor disembarks, no worse the wear for his outburst.

Should I have said something? I should have said something.

The first three buttons of the Mediterranean man’s shirt are undone, revealing a generous expanse of chest hair. It is also slightly too tight, showcasing rather large shoulders. The look is too sculpted, too self-aware. He loses his appeal in an instant.

When he later picks his nose and wipes it on the seat, we all pretend not to see.


So that happened. It’s common in Tokyo. It’s not like similar things don’t happen in other countries, but even after several years, the ‘Women Only’ carriages really got to me. You see a lot of unusual behaviour on trains – once I saw a middle aged businessman slapping a girl who nudged him while she was doing her makeup.