Motzstrasse

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By James Carson:

On a warm autumn night, I ordered a beer at a bar in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. On one of the plasma screens positioned behind the bar, Danny Kaye was duetting with Kermit the Frog. On another, a different coupling was in progress between a half-naked firefighter and a young man with a hunger for a half-naked firefighter. A third screen was advertising forthcoming events: Leather Pride, Halloween, Christmas. Before long, another year would have passed into memory.

In a city freighted with history, Schöneberg carries the weight of the past with a rare delicacy. A few blocks from the bar, the art nouveau U-Bahn station on Wittenbergplatz is a testament to Berlin’s imperial heritage, and to its 19th century transformation from  “a dingy city in a marsh” – as Mark Twain put it – to “ the Chicago of Europe.“

Next to the station, an understated sign displays the names of  Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the other prison camps where millions were murdered. Many of them began their hellish journeys at Wittenbergplatz.

Further south, the sandstone city hall of Schöneberg was the location for John F Kennedy’s famous speech, in which – depending on who you believe – the President of the United States may or may not have proclaimed himself to be a jam doughnut.

This well-heeled quarter is an architectural Irish stew. Gründerzeit apartments, sporting preposterously ornate balconies, rub shoulders with plainer post-war facades painted in unexpected flavour combinations of aubergine and custard, beetroot and lime. Modern, glass-fronted hotels share the streets with antique stores, booksellers and sex shops. The famous names attached to Schöneberg are as diverse as the landscape: Helmut Newton, David Bowie, the Brothers Grimm.

It’s in this multifaceted neighbourhood that I found myself on a still, September night. Like many a gay bar from Brisbane to Baltimore, this one had a cross section of clientele: locals and tourists, the handsome and the hopeful, the deluded and the desperate.

A low buzz of conversation – punctuated by the occasional grunt escaping from the darkroom – was overlaid by a soundtrack of Europop. The barman conveyed quiet authority, his burly figure contained by a leather harness that was less of a fashion accessory, more a work of civil engineering.

I was embarking on my second beer when the cops arrived. Two, then four, then half a dozen police officers entered the small bar, and paused to survey the scene. Hello, I thought, it’s somebody's birthday, and I sat back to enjoy the show. I had to hand it to them: they looked the real deal, right down to their off-yellow uniforms and don’t-fuck-with-us expressions.

They fanned out, resting glances on clots of men around the bar. From somewhere, a wolf whistle was followed by a snigger. One of the cops caught my gaze, then released it before heading into the darkroom. The occupants must have thought Christmas had come early.  

Two officers were stationed at the door. One nudged the other and gestured in the direction of the plasma screen, where the firefighter was no longer merely half-naked. The cop’s mate gave a little smirk.

The lights went up, Sophie Ellis-Bextor was cut off in her track and the show began. I looked on as the police did their thing: asking questions, taking names. The years fell away.

During the 1920s, Berlin was a magnet for people in search of the freedom to be themselves. In Motzstrasse, Marlene Dietrich performed at The Eldorado club, where men dressed in lace frocks and called themselves Letty and Countess Marina. A few streets away, Christopher Isherwood chronicled a decade of decadence in the company of Sally Bowles and an assortment of male playmates. Beyond Schöneberg, more than 100 Berlin bars, cafes and clubs welcomed homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, and any curious souls open to the idea of difference as a way of life.

The new era of tolerance extended to wider society. In print, on the stage and on the cinema screen, gay men and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows. And in medicine, a pioneering physician, Magnus Hirschfeld, attempted a better scientific understanding of homosexuality.

While some regarded Berlin as enlightened, others viewed it as degenerate and perverse. By the beginning of the 1930s more bars were being raided by the police. Names were taken, arrests were made and most bars were closed. A fortunate few, like Christopher Isherwood and Magnus Hirschfeld, escaped the worst. Hirschfeld’s library was an early victim of the Nazi book burning frenzy.

Homosexual men now lived in fear. Affection and affectation became incriminating acts. A gesture or a look could lead to the concentration camp. Once there, inmates were ‘re-educated’, through slave labour, castration and horrific forms of surgical experimentation. Almost two-thirds of the 50,000 homosexual men sent to the prison camps died there.

I approached the barman who was grimly observing the police as they checked ID cards.  “Is it drugs?” I asked, in a low voice. He rewarded me with a look that Berliners hold in special reserve for imbeciles, and nodded towards an ashtray on the bar.

As quickly as they’d arrived, the cops were gone. The soundtrack resumed, accompanied by a chorus of resentment.  

“They made us feel like criminals!” said one aggrieved voice. “Yeah, said another, “You can smoke dick in here, but you get treated like shit for a fucking cigarette!” I’d never answered tobacco’s siren call. It was this that had spared me a brush with the law.

Today, The Eldorado is a supermarket, with a photograph of Marlene Dietrich at the door, and further down the street, the Hirschfeld pharmacy is named in remembrance of an early champion of gay rights. On nearby Nollendorfstrasse, a plaque outside Isherwood’s apartment offers a reminder that these storied streets are where Cabaret was born. And at Nollendorfplatz, a triangle carved in pink marble remembers the homosexual victims of a regime that promised to make Germany great again.

It was business as usual when I returned to the bar the following evening. Except now there was a hand-scrawled note taped to the door:

NO SMOKING – BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT

***
James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Wells-next-the-Sea, a poem by Ian C Smith

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I am anxious driving through green England
always moving on, never stopping long.
In Norfolk, an argument east of The Wash
an old man wearing a cloth cap
strokes a horse’s whiskery nose in grey light.

A man, a horse, a cart, a sign.
Yes, she wants to take the ride
but with the reins in her experienced hands.
The old man hears us out, considers us,
before agreeing to a test drive.

He watches.  Scavenging gulls hover.
A merry-go round and round the empty carpark.
I talk her up, a city boy standing close,
clop, clop my praise overflowing.
You’d think she was Clancy’s daughter.

Our high seat might be a magic carpet,
morning air still, few cars, glimpse of sea.
Horse skiving, I ask how she knows the way.
The horse does.  I’m just along for the ride.
Some early shoppers stop, turn to stare.

The old nag’s pace increases.
We must be heading back, she says.
Aren’t you steering?  In control?
Hardly.  Stop waving, you show-off.
She seems happier now, in her element.

The horizon behind, I picture Europe beyond,
my mind fizzing with travel’s romance.
Then the old man, looking lonely, relieved.
He says, I knew you’d be all right,
his words a lighthouse beam of hope.  

***

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.


Mirages: A walk along the periphery

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By Julia Bennett:

mirage noun 1. an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions

Air still, heat building during the morning in the summer of 2018. Purple marshes to the right, tinged with sea lavender, to the left the creeks and sandbanks of the interstitial area between land and sea. Stepping out eastwards from Burnham Deepdale, the North Norfolk coast path crosses Deepdale Marsh on a high raised bank. Upturned boats seemingly abandoned to the mud and gulls; a windmill in the distance, unmoving. A sense of desolation averted by the Mediterranean-like heat. A group of paddle boarders drift past: serenely balanced on their boards in the still waters of the English coastal creeks, but clearly not fit craft for the rigours of the North Sea crossing itself. This is the not-quite-land and not-quite-sea border of the rump of England, back turned towards mainland Europe out across the North Sea.

The path itself, built up above the tides, steers a tenuous path between the opposing forces of land and water. The local population of sea birds is well adapted to the equivocal nature of this place: long-legged orange-beaked oyster catchers; a lively assortment of gulls; mousy-brown curlews, elongated toes splayed over the surface, long bills digging deep into the salty mud. Passport-less, curlews travel across Europe. Some stay in the UK over winter, others choosing France or Spain, like elderly British holiday makers spending a few months somewhere warm to save on heating bills. A slight ripple in the creek signals the presence of those bilingual, multi-modal, land-and-marine mammals: an otter, bobbing a furry head briefly above the water. For millennia the North Sea has provided a pathway to the rest of the world, rather than a moat around the castle of England.

Hitting the road at Burnham Overy Staithe the mood changes: the harbour bustles with tourists, boats clamouring for their custom. Zig-zagging through the crowds, the coast path steps out again onto a high bank, this time crowded with people headed to the beaches at Holkam Nature Reserve. Creeks and channels curl into the spit of land like tree roots digging into a rock face, refusing to give way to the clarity of either land or sea. Dunes ahead obscure the view of the beach whilst simultaneously signalling its sandy closeness. Over the dune-summit the land finally concedes defeat and in a long exhalation of breath sends a broad expanse of blue to meet the horizon. Golden sands stretch eastwards as far as the eye can see, a broad yellow-highlighter mark on the map demarcating the island of Great Britain from the continental mainland. Walking now along the shoreline footprints stamp out tribal belongings, temporary tattoos washed away by the next wave. The hot, still land seems to hold its breath and wait. Gradually, Holkam beach broadens out as the land of this corner of England distinguishes itself from the polyglot North/Nord Sea/see/zee. No longer a liminal space between land and sea, mainland and island, the ground underfoot becomes a little firmer and the atmosphere changes.

mirage noun 1.1. An unrealistic hope or wish that cannot be achieved

A couple of miles along, dunes rise again and behind them, a cool, sweet smelling pine wood reminiscent of the beaches of Northern France. The cool silence of the deserted sand-and-pine-needles paths sheltering beneath the trees provides a breathing space away from the spotlight of the hot midday sun. Through the trees, glimpses of colourful painted beach huts presage the arrival of the superior-but-faded grandeur of Wells-next-the-sea. In bright blocks of colour or Breton stripes beach huts are a staple of the traditional British seaside, along with buckets and spades and sticks of rock. But unlike the cheap plastic buckets on sale they are highly desired properties, costing almost a day’s wages to rent for the day, despite being, literally, built on sand.

Emerging from the trees the path skirts a large car park before following the sea wall into Wells-next-the-sea, ironically another mile inland due to the retreat of the sea over the centuries. A mini-train transports those without cars to and from the beach. The sea’s retreat changed the identity of this place. Wells was a busy trading port with Europe in the sixteenth century but is now a slightly upmarket, English seaside town with fish and chips and tacky souvenir shops along the front and a few olde gifte shoppes in the narrow roads heading inland.

The coastal bus service passes through here. It is full of school children at 4 o’clock on a term-time weekday afternoon, with a few tourists and the occasional local. Along this gentrified stretch of coast, the bus travels through picture-postcard villages: red-tiled rooves and Georgian facades, roses around the doors of stone cottages, traditional butchers’ and greengrocers’ shops with names written in antiquated fonts, and the ever-present bunting, flapping gently in the breeze. At first glance this is an image of a corner of England which, much like Wells, has been left high and dry by the twenty-first century. A Disneyfied mirage, hazy in the late-afternoon heat. Isn’t that a ‘Jack Wills’ nestling amongst the tea shops of Burnham Market?

***

Note: Definitions taken from en.oxforddictionaries.com

Julia Bennett is a sociologist who researches place and belonging


Hermannplatz

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By Mike Hembury:

Sometimes words fail me.

Sometimes I struggle to put a name to even the most commonplace, the most obvious of things.

I don’t think it’s pathological in my case. But there is a word for the condition: dysnomia.

Curiously, Dysnomia is also the name of the Greek goddess of lawlessness, praised by some as the daemon of freedom and rebellion.

***

My first flat in Berlin was on Sonnenallee, almost at the corner of Hermannplatz.

That was back before Sonnenallee turned into Little Damascus.

Don't get me wrong, I like the way it is now. But I liked it back then too. Loud, dirty, unpretentious. The beating scraggy heart of North-Neukölln.

No-one would ever say that Sonnenallee is pretty. No-one can claim that Hermannplatz looks nice.

It has some "art" these days though. There's a statue in the middle of the square that has two golden figures in a pose you could possibly interpret as dancing. It's a crap statue, only serving to make the place look cheaper than it already is.  

When I arrived back then it was a golden October day. I was due to link up with a friend of a friend, a guy called Harald who lived near Hermannplatz. I came out of the arrivals gate and there was this guy beaming at me. Maybe he recognized me from my friend's description, maybe he was just smiling at everyone. It was 1982. There was no email back then, and we hadn't been in contact before.

I said "You must be Hermann."

He just laughed. "Hermann from Haraldplatz?"

I was a little taken aback. "Sure, I guess so. Or not?"

He stretched out his right hand. Long fingernails. A guitarist's hand. "Harald. Easy mistake. Good to meet you."

We took the bus back from the airport. Changed at Zoo and took the U-Bahn to Hermannplatz. Dumped my stuff at his place and I let him guide me down to the Landwehrkanal, where we sat in the garden of Café am Ufer and drank large bowls of milky coffee.

The autumn sun was warm and the sunlight filtered through the orange leaves of the beech trees lining the canal.  

Everything was new except, strangely, Harald.

He had already acquired a familiarity that maybe should have surprised me, but somehow didn't.

We just clicked. He was like the older brother I never had. I was 21, he was 26 or 27. Still a student, driving a taxi, making music and writing poetry like a real Berlin intellectual.

He knew the ropes.

He was part of a posse of draft-dodgers who had fled to West Berlin from Stuttgart on receiving their call-up papers.

After three months of hanging out with Harald's crowd in Berlin I spoke German with a Stuttgart accent.

***

One time he took out his teeth to show me. He had smashed his jaw in a trampolining accident in his teens, and now had a full set of false teeth which he could hook onto a few remaining stumps in his mouth.

He was a heavy smoker, so his teeth had a kind of patinated ivory quality to them, like you see on the keys of pub pianos.

Harald's flat was a dark, first-floor two-roomer in the rear courtyard of a vaguely slummy Berlin tenement. It had an outside toilet and a boiler over the sink for hot water.

When I asked, on the evening of that first day of my new life in Berlin, where he wanted me to sleep, he just pulled the keys out of his pocket and flung them across the table where we were sitting.

"It's all yours. You take the bed. I'll be upstairs with Sabina."

Sabina was his Lebensabschnittsgefährtin - his 'life phase companion', to use the dry jargon of the times.  

***

The October sunshine didn't last. Winter came quickly, with snow in November. I learned to use the Kachelofen - a big, tiled, lignite burning room heater of the type that have now all but disappeared from the city.

If I had to tell you one smell from those years it would be the particular smell of burning lignite - "brown coal" to the locals - in sub-zero air. Preferably alcohol-fuelled, in the three-in-the-morning snow.

Back then I would wake to the sound of the kids on the school playground next door. Put the kettle on for coffee. Take a trip down half a flight of stairs to the little loo in a cupboard on the landing. Come back and fire up the coal burner. Roll a cigarette, drink a coffee and think what a grand life I had.

No, I'm lying. Even with new friends, Berlin can be a tough place. I missed my girlfriend, who was on a student exchange in Paris. I wasn't suited to living alone. Half the time, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing there.

Harald had become a big part of my life though. Big and getting bigger. One time, returning from a trip to England, I literally leaped into his arms, footballer-style. That should perhaps have rung a few bells, but it didn't at the time.

I was ignorant. Unversed in the hearts of men, and ignorant about myself, and the possibilities within me.

So when Harald took the logical step, and put a name to the obvious, and told me that he had fallen in love with me, I was like: "Ok, so now what?"

I remember him raising an eyebrow. Looking at me, with his dark eyes.

"I mean, what do you want me to do with that information?"

I was cool, detached. Hurtful, I guess, because afraid. My English upbringing hadn’t equipped me with the words to deal with such a situation.

"Is it going to change anything?"

"I guess not."

It did change something though. It changed everything.

We ended up in an ill-advised ménage-à-trois with his latest girlfriend, Karin.

It didn't end well, for me at least, though I think they are still together.

What can I say? I was young and stupid, and still had so much to learn.

Our friendship exploded.

We've lived in the same city for 30 years and seen each other maybe twice, accidentally.

Hermannplatz still has a Harald-shaped hole in it, a scar that troubles me sometimes.

I guess sorry is the word I was looking for.   

*** 

Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England, and describes himself as a writer, musician, photographer, sailor and environmentalist in no particular order. He is the author of a novel, New Clone City, and writes a regular environmental column for the online journal The Wild Word. He is also a member of Extinction Rebellion, the Dark Mountain Project and the Climate Cultures network. You can find out more about Mike on his website: mikehembury.org.



Spring In This Place – a poem by Will Burns

I choose the bee-flies for company today.
Sunlight on beech leaves,
cool sweat in the warm wood,
the blue flowers of the season.
Not numerology or some old painting
I think you might like.
Not a poem I hope you read for signs of life.
I fall hard for this place every day
the way we do for people we shouldn’t.

***

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As part of The People’s Forest project, the poet Will Burns is creating a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns is penning a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined – here we have had the pleasure and privilege to publish Will’s poem for spring.

Sunrise to sunset: walking Kolkata

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By Alex Cochrane:

Kolkata has been called a city of furious energy, the city of joy, a dying city. It is teeming, intense, broken and modern, old British empire and a stronghold of Bengali pride and culture. It’s crumbling and developing, wealthy and poor. It’s digested a tragic history but has a unique soul where it’s almost obligatory to have chats, or ada, with random strangers in the streets.

Four am and I’m drifting through a north Kolkata neighbourhood. The streets are quiet, owned by scuttling rats and packs of dogs who strut and bark at my intrusion. It’s their time to own the streets. The night’s storms have slickened the streets and freshened the air.

Figures swathed in cloth sleep on the pavements, on rickety frames, under rickshaws, on mats, on ledges and on carts. Whole families curled up together under tarpaulin shelters, their washing strung out on nearby railings. The poverty is not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a depressing sight.

The first tram of the day clanks and grinds its way through the still-dark streets. We sit in first class where instructions are written in English, for the old British colonialists. The streets are still silent but there are flashes of activity. The wholesale markets are up and running. We pass through one at the crossroads with huge mounds of coconuts; another has bundles of sugar cane ready for distribution to the juice crushers.  At another crossroads, groups of men stand around, sipping on early morning chai. These are the mechanics waiting for work.

Now the day is getting started - fires are being coaxed into life, figures are stirring, families are washing by the gushing street standpipes. Lights are lit on chai stalls cubby holes, pavement stalls. Power is hijacked from spaghetti junctions of illegal hook-ups. The first of the porters are pulling carts with huge piles of cooking pots. The crows hop about, looking for food and material to build their nests.

Soon it will rev up to full throttle, to the full cacophony of noise and traffic. Soon, along Rabindra Sarani or Chowringee Road, the pavements will be choked with so much trading you’ll be forced to walk on the road. The streets will smell of ghee, spices, urine, overripe fruit, smoke, pollution and incense from the Hindu street shrines. The beggars will rattle their tins and the rickshaw wallahs will ring their bells to attract business.

Since I was last in India, I had forgotten how busy its streets could be. The streets come at you from all angles - broken pavements to trip you, traffic to dodge and open drains to avoid.  The traffic is ferocious and fluid, furiously flowing round the ambling street sweepers with their carts of rubbish. The traffic snarls, beeps and roars at itself. Hawkers sleep, hawkers hustle, hawkers hawk. Conductors shout their destinations from ramshackle colourful buses that bolt off with sudden manic energy. Kids play cricket on a bit of wasteland amongst the tramlines.

Is this chaos intoxicating or overwhelming? In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury, explores his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata. “Calcutta”, he writes, “is an impossible place”. When he was a boy he dropped a water bottle into an open drain and watched sink into the dark sludge with a great sense of loss. “Any of us, any time, could fall into the black river that bubbled below the sidewalks of our city and be sucked into oblivion.” This city built on a swamp that compels him to return home from New Jersey to the astonishment of his family.

We walk to the flower market in the shadow of the Hooghly Bridge. Great mounds of flowers are gently emptied out of large sacks. The sparrows descend on the flowers in search of insects. The market is a muddy warren divided into sections for marigolds, roses, leaf. The mobile flower sellers wander off with lines of orange and yellow flowers hanging down from around their neck. They put their hands on their heads to avoid crushing their delicate wares.

Pushing through the marketplace, we emerge onto the ghats where locals are bathing and washing. A man sluices out a row of pools for the birds to drink from.  By the river, a priest is blessing a man. They are crouching down with incense and flowers at their feet. A group of men with shaved heads watch and wait nearby. An air of sadness hangs round for them for this is a ritual of grief for those who have  a lost a parent.

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We catch a ferry. I’m astonished when I see a man latch onto to the tyre on the side of the ferry, surfing with the wash. No-one bats an eyelid. This is why I love India. As the ferry nears the jetty, the man hauls himself onto the ferry and dives into the river, swimming to a jetty with moored fishing boats.

From the ferry, we walk to Kumartuli, the neighbourhood where gods and demons emerge out of clay and mud. It’s a warren of workshops, where statues are lined-up in all the different stages of creation - from crude straw and mud forms to colourful, painted gods waiting for transportation. We stop off to feast on delicious Bengali sweets and pastries.

Back around Park Street, men listlessly sit about or sleep under carts, sit at doorways to dark interiors, waiting for the intense heat of the afternoon to pass. Business has slackened a little but the pavement still offers every service you could need. Have a crumpled shirt? The iron wallah will sort with an old heavy iron heated up by a charcoal burner. Men stand ready with the tools of their trade at their feet - extracting wax from your ears, repairing your mobile, cutting your hair, polishing your shoes.

The evening sun floods the rooftops with a golden red glow as it quickly sinks away. Kites soar around the buildings, scouting for prey. Lizards scamper amongst the flower pots. Then in the last flush of daylight, it begins, the first murmur, then a growing sacred chorus rising and drifting across the city. It’s the call to prayer, the mosques summoning the faithful. As the call tails off, the sun sinks behind the horizon on this city of endless contradiction and its ceaseless human parade.

***
Alex Cochrane is based in Glasgow and blogs about exploration, travel, history, historical erotica and other curiosities on his website. You can also follow Alex on Twitter at @alexdcochrane. You can also see more images from his Kolkata walk here.

Dispatches from Olsztyn - Practitioners

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe, and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog. As an amuse gueule, here is one of my first pieces for the Stadtschreiber blog, about a wander along the local river.

***

“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I like walking. This seems to be an odd statement, given that anyone does that on a daily basis. But I think we don’t walk enough these days, and not consciously enough. Or, as writer and editor Paul Sullivan writes in his essay Walking the City:

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

So during my first week in Olsztyn I did what I always do when I want to learn about a place: I went for a walk. I actually went on a walk every day, though some days I cheated by taking a bus or the tram. I first drew circles in and around the old town with my feet, exploring the main thoroughfares and shopping centres, but also the back alleys, laneways and suburbs of the city.

For me, someone who is now living in a central location and without a car, Olsztyn really is a city that lends itself to walking. The new parks along the Łyna river (the German Alle) are pleasant places to stroll and to linger, and on Friday afternoon there where students and teenagers sitting under bridges or on the wooden steps that lead down to the water, swigging from beer cans and smoking; office workers on their lunch break sat on benches and licked ice cream, parents leisurely pushed buggies along the pathways left and right of the river.

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From the parks, I then walked northwards, past the castle from 1346 and the Warmia brewery from in a former mill building from 1868, and finally under the railway viaducts from 1871 and 1893 and the newer road bridges into the city forest proper. Every time I see the viaducts I’m reminded of Robert Budzinki’s tongue-in-cheek travel book 'Die Entdeckung Ostpreußens' (The Discovery of East Prussia).

Budzinski (1874 -1955) was a painter, graphic artist and author, and – even though he himself was born in East Prussia in Klein-Schläfken (Sławka Mała today) – in 1913 published his 'travel book' which is not only full of wonderful woodcuts, but also sardonically talks about East Prussia as the proverbial distant eastern province. He also records the often exotic-sounding East Prussian place names, before they were 'Germanised' by the Nazis 20 years later:

During my wanderings I continuously discovered places with not very known but quite illustrious names; so that I often thought I was roving about in a magical landscape. One day I took the train from Groß-Aschnaggern to Liegentrocken, Willpischken, Pusperschkallen and Katrinigkeiten, breakfasted in Karkeln, arrived in Pissanitzen, Bammeln, Babbeln, and had dinner in Pschintschikowsken while aiming to overnight in Karßamupchen.

The book remains in print until today, which I think is a testament to his enduring humour and skill as an artist. From under the bridges then I made my way into the city forest proper, with the Łyna growing wider to my right and only the occasional biker disturbing my solitude. I like to be out, walking, slightly removed from the noise of the world. Or, as Walter Benjamin writes in 'Berlin Childhood around 1900', 'Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.' The beauty of Olsztyn is that the forest proper is never far – so I can train to get lost both here and in the city. The lady walking her dog just that came towards me on the forest path did not seem to agree with my Waldeinsamkeit: the look she gave me over the rim of her sunglasses seemed to suggest that only idiots stand in the middle of a forest and scribble in notebooks.

I continued for another 30 minutes before I decided to leave the Łyna valley and loop back to the city centre. I walked up the wooden slope right of the river and came across the Leśny Stadium, now almost completely reclaimed by grass and trees, where athlete Józef Szmidt (the so-called 'Silesian Kangaroo', born in 1935 and an honorary citizen of Olsztyn today) broke the world record for triple jump in 1960 with a length of 17.03 metres. I wonder if the soft peat soil here had something to do with that. Further on, I came across a graffiti of three knights on a wall, maybe a harmless reflection of the Teutonic Knights that haunted these woods long ago.

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A not so harmless reminder of the violent past was just up the road – two cemeteries of honour, one a German one with dead from both World Wars that was restored and is looked after by the German Minority Association of Olsztyn, with men who died in 1914 lying next to men who were born in 1914; and the other a small Russian plot, with no headstones left but a German memorial set up in 1914 that reads:

Here rest Russian soldiers who followed the orders of their ruler, found their death fighting against the liberators of East Prussia and are now buried far from their home

It seems a futile honourable gesture, something that would have surely not been set up following the industrialised mass murder of the Somme and Verdun and during the Brussilov offensive, which surely eradicated all humanity left then.

When I walked back from the cemeteries, my head full of somber thoughts, chance and sunlight and the city cheered me up: a pizza taxi stopped near the forest entrance and two teenage girls emerged from the woods, inexplicably wearing white plastic antennae and white plastic fairy wings. They paid for the pizza and skipped back into the woods, to what I can only imagine must have been the first fairy pizza picnic of spring in Olsztyn this year.

Passages / Transambulare

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By Anna Evans:

The passage is a city, a world in miniature.
– Walter Benjamin

Our walk back through the city, in the fading light, when everything starts to look different. We take the Metro upwards, with the idea that we can descend back towards the centre via a series of steps marking our route. I am charged with navigating streets unknown to me: guesswork, anticipating the disorienting effects of the darkness. Already, it begins to fold over us, obscuring the paths we take, bending downwards through the lit city streets.

You expect the secrets of the streets to unveil themselves like a map, as if you could look at them from above; but they only come step by step, there is no panoramic view.

It is at this time of day that the city begins to reveal itself. When street lamps are lit, exposing walls and the narrow passageways between buildings. The lights illuminate brightly so that the wall seems cast in yellow stone, and the shadows of overlooked corners steal away to find new hiding places.

The shutters suggest a neglected abandon, broken and crumbling. For a moment I am mesmerised, drawn inwards to claustrophobic interiors, the living darkness; concealment of unspeakable shadow. Echoes of the uncountable possibilities of the concave life of the city.

Out on the streets daytime is retreating, furtively, while the night is lit up like a museum display. Steps leading upwards, and at their base the silent scream of graffiti on walls. Unabashedly colourful, it becomes a mural, taking its place within the narrative of the streets.

As we walk, you identify one of the symbols that mark the famous passageways, the lion’s head, and opening the heavy wooden door we enter, perhaps there is a passage through. At the entrance I take a photograph…

***

It has been a day of wandering streets, drawn into courtyards and entrances, seeking glimpses of interiors, arches and vaulted ceilings. The traboules, the network of passages between buildings, crossing through the streets of old Lyon.

When the city was occupied in the Second World War, Resistance fighters used this system of passageways to evade the Gestapo and as meeting or drop-off points. Perhaps this is why they feel underground in some way, like stumbling upon the unseen and hidden side of the city. An in-between space, they suggest undercover operations, secrets and trespass, a code you have to know about; off the map.

They are a passage through where it looks like there is none.

***

The photograph shows a series of staircases lit up, rising to the top of the building. Railings ascending, the stairwells connect the floors, crossing sides and linking them together. The stairway exposed, ironwork and stone pillars; it is as though one partition, one side of the edifice has been removed, like a doll’s house.

In the photograph, the yellow light is eerie; it accentuates murkiness and incandescence. The ascent of the stairs a gradual slant upwards, shadowy and bending towards the reflected cast of iron railings. Lit up, haunted space. Through the closed door the city continues, spilling its inside into the outside. It is like seeing what usually takes place under cover, behind the walls of the building. Like an undercover car park, subterranean and suggestive. The illusion of mystery; what it looks like when no one is around.

Looking at the photograph, I notice the figure again; remembering how entering the passage had seemed like an intrusion, into a space we thought was empty. In the way that cities have always that possibility of an encounter, in passing by or meeting another, in crossing over. Footsteps following onwards.

In the contrast between bright and dark, the figure both blends in and is exposed. Like a shadow emerging from the walls of the building, ghostlike, and appearing only as the photograph is taken. An apparition. An echo of the light and the shadow. As if the figure is both there and not there.

It is the stillness of the figure that strikes me now. It is as though they have been sitting a long time, on the stairs, outside of laws and history. The lit cigarette, like a pause. The brightness of the light making a silhouette. The smallness of a human figure positioned in space and timeless, against the city streets. A witness to all the hidden and secret encounters, and to everything that might take place in a passageway.

***

Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.


Everything I Didn't Find in Vancouver

Painting by Jase Falk.

Painting by Jase Falk.

By Jase Falk:

Warm light and wanting circle in through my earbuds. Patterned question marks and safety lights line the aisles of the plane. I’m missing you already as you write poems and drink matcha in Winnipeg. We weren’t steady in our love then and we aren’t now either, but in this distance and exchanged letters it felt like there was a growing—we wanted there to be a growing.

I stepped off the plane, my gender caught up in tangles of hair. The way you used to run fingers through the knots and listen to the slow hum of my heartbeat pulling up through veins traced down the length of my forearms taught me the meaning of safety. A latticework of language formed the shape of us. I needed shape to myself; had I no shape to myself? Years passed through me like how grandma used to whisper stories while the world slipped by, our cups of tea shimmering to its beat, leftover paska bread, eggs dully cooked, yokes a disintegration of yellow in the pan.

Float through Vancouver like a ghost; spectres of me dance down alleyways in graceless imitation of you. I’ve always envied the way linen hangs differently on your shoulders, like soil grew and wove it there. No lack of confidence in your cursive. My stumbling into coffee shops, penning words like you penned down words. My wanting you bore such resemblance to my wanting to be you. Your letters gave me form like the inside of my bones.

Flashes of red and yellow as I travel through the underpass. Loud sigh of my bicycle break’s un-oiled song. This city’s grid is not interrupted by muddy water. I kept peeking over the boardwalks on Granville Island only to see faint ripples of my face return.

Drift back from apartment on Davie street to wet lines and rainbows sliding down Commercial Drive. All is queer at night, but in the day we hide ourselves. All is poured out here, but back home I hide myself.

Night of fairy lights, soft guitars paired with words falling petal-like on the small crowd bundled up in wine stained blankets. There is a kind of softness that knows how to cut out space in a world which does not want it. I’m all broken open up in tasseled fissures. Never knew words that could work their way through such a thicket of skin. Afterwards, a woman shares her smoke with me. We talk by the fence while groups of warm bodies move aglow like candle light nearby. I hope to find identity. I don’t quite identify. Her words cluster and form hickeys above my collar. She knows but doesn’t say. I know, but don’t know how to say. I told myself I would not serve, but here I am passing wine amongst loving faces under porch lattice, vines carry their long bodies down to play on our shoulders. We are graced. We sing grace though we don’t know it. Don’t know who we’re singing to as wax spills over tablecloth, the light almost out. She would have asked for a kiss goodnight, but saw my unknowing for she had known it before. Warm arms fasten body to ground then fall away like the smell of rain carrying me into the night.

Your wanting spurts out in a phone call, alone with its uncertainty. I change my flight and leave a week early. The seat buckle tightens around my waist and the flight attendant asks “sir, would you like a drink?” I gather question marks from around my feet, tattoo them onto skin. You curl loose fingers around my shoulder and don’t know me. I grow into you—toss my questions in the messy corners of your room. Return the fullness of myself; put this body in motion. We tangle into one another, we still don’t have the right words, but brush chalk dust off and name each other till we find a stillness. Vancouver listens, patient in the distance, for anything to awake in the absence of its cedar.

***

Jase Falk is a non-binary writer who spends time in archives daydreaming of cedar trees and different futures where we have a chance. You can find them on Twitter here.

9HDU

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By David Cooper:

Outside, beyond the guanoed glass, was the place that I’d left two decades earlier. Each day, for three full weeks, I looked out to get a purchase on the city that, however long I’ve lived elsewhere, will always be fixed as home. Every so often, though, I adjusted my focus so that I could see the reflection of the room on the surface of the window. In the glass I was reminded that, behind me, my Dad’s failing body lay flat on a bed.

During those three weeks, I thought a lot about places. Inevitably, I thought about the places in which my Dad had spent his life. He’d always lived in cities. The first five years of his life were in Cardiff. Later on, he spent much of his twenties in pre-gentrified New Cross, just around the corner from Goldsmith’s. Nottingham, though, was my Dad’s city: the place that he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. Growing up, we listened to his stories of summer days spent fishing on the Trent and of Saturday morning meetings by the lions on Slab Square. In our house, the suburbs of Arnold and Mapperley, Carlton and Hucknall, were edenic elsewheres.

If Nottingham was a remembered place, Liverpool was an always-emerging present: the city where my Dad lived and worked for most of his adult life. Looking out of 9HDU, it was impossible not to worry about the politics of this place. Up here, from the ninth floor of the Royal, Liverpool seemed to turn its back on the rest of England. In the past, I’ve always felt a more-than-slight embarrassment with Liverpool’s narratives of exceptionalism. Yet, on 9HDU, unease was replaced by approval: I respected the city’s ambivalence towards establishment ideas of Englishness; I admired the apparent disinterest in the visions of Albion being pedalled by Rees-Mogg’s aristo-vaudeville act 200 miles to the south in the Palace of Westminster. Here, on the rim of the Irish Sea and looking towards north Wales, Etonian England seemed a long way behind us. But, of course, Liverpool is only ever semi-detached from the rest of the country and its political landscape. To the right, I could see the docklands whose transformation owed so much to European funding. Closer still was the shell of the new Royal. Originally scheduled to open in March 2017, building work on this hospital stalled early in 2018 as Carillion collapsed.

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Sitting, hour after hour in a punishing plastic chair, I also thought about the relationship between the worlds inside and out. In the day, the contrast was marked. Indoors, 9HDU was a zone of measured hyperactivity. The nurses – countries of birth: India, Italy, the Philippines, Portugal – danced between the beds with choreographed care. The doctors – countries of birth: England, Nigeria, Sri Lanka – monitored, reflected and, recorded. This sense of activity was acoustic too. Throughout the day, the keynote was the rhythmical beeps of the dialysis machines scattered across the unit. As my Mum put it on Day 12: ‘you tune into their music after a while’. In contrast, the world outside seemed serenely still. Although we looked out across the city centre, we couldn’t – through a geometric quirk - see any road traffic from our vantage point on floor nine. From here, then, the city seemed a static space. Over time, we got our eyes in and began to read the undulations on the Mersey in the middle-distance. We had to work pretty hard, though, to pick out such surface movements. For the most part, the ward window provided a frame for a motionless panorama; an updated version of Ben Johnson’s acrylic painting of the city a decade on from its year as European Capital of Culture.

The dark, however, brought a reversal. Towards the end, we spent a few long nights alongside my Dad in the hospital. During ‘the hours of hush’, the strip lights were dimmed and 9HDU morphed into a soothing space. This strange stasis was juxtaposed with the dozens of dots flitting across the autumnal darkness outside. Looking down, tiny lights progressed slowly up the Mersey and out into Liverpool Bay. Looking up, more lights flashed as planes followed the arc of the river when coming into land in Speke. At night, we were reminded that this is, and always has been, a city of comings and goings.

9HDU seemed to be hermetically sealed. If I shifted the plastic chair into a particular spot, however, I could feel cold air entering the room through a gap around a window that, absurdly, could only be opened through the nurses’ use of a stained silver tea-spoon. For the staff working on 9HDU, that gap was a practical problem as well as a constant reminder that the new hospital remained not much more than an architect’s fantasy. The only solution, to prevent the cold from getting in, was to shut out the city by pulling across the disposable curtains. I felt differently, though. I wanted those curtains to be yanked back so that my Dad, lying flat on the bed, could see the spikes and sandstone of the city’s two cathedrals. I wanted the cold air to come into the room and to flow towards him.

As I sat there, I thought about the wind moving towards us. It came over the Clywdian Hills and across the flatlands of the Wirral. It travelled over the Mersey and snaked through the city’s streets and alleys, squares and churchyards; it picked up pace as it headed past Lime Street and up London Road towards the Royal. I imagined that something of the city came with that wind as it crept through the gap and into 9HDU. The city flowed into the room, and into my Dad, as, at the last, he struggled to breathe back out.

***

Three months on, I spoke to my Mum on the phone one evening. It was getting dark outside but she told me that didn’t want to shut the curtains in the living-room at home. ‘We used to close them to tuck ourselves in’, she said, ‘but I can’t feel tucked in anymore’. Those curtains have remained open.

***

David Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in English (Place Writing) at Manchester Metropolitan University whose research concentrates on literary geographies. David on Twitter.