Monday, November 16, 2009

Again in Berlin

Back in Berlin, in my usual cafe for morning writing, the green tracks still rise from the ground, and knobs and levers of the expresso machine still clank in the background against the rush of steam. The barista, though, is new. He is dark haired and lanky, unlike the shorter, bearded Spaniard with a ring in his nose who generally was here.

There are other changes too. But the most important is inside. I have been gone for a week, but the rhythm of my stay was broken. I need to find the score, check the key and the time signature so a new melody can begin. The old one is gone, though its harmonies still hum in the rain at night.
Puebla is beautiful and its attractions still pull, like a good date on the day after. It will be awhile before I see Puebla again, and I can’t call her to set a new date.
After a lot of sleep to recover from travel, I did not want to get up this morning and go to breakfast. The group I shared ing meals with for most of the last week is scattered, leaves in a chill fall wind. It took them to Mexico City, Utah, Rome and Seville in this round whole of a world criss-crossed by plumes of fuel and currents of air.
After arriving at a Tegel Airport, yesterday, that was pleasantly familiar and an immigrations and customs process that was so much easier than either entering Mexico or the Untied States, my ears returned to their flirtation with German. An overly full bus stretched around corners depositing passengers here and took me to Alexanderplatz.
Much of the Wall display is down, replaced by a Christmas market’s plywood stands not yet open. From one celebration to another. From Mauerfall to Weinacht, the wall’s fall to a blizzard of gifts.
The sky was blue, and temperatures rose to the mid fifties. It was not the seventy of Puebla where I walked in short sleeves and sat in outdoor cafes and people thronged the plaza to hear and see the festival’s performers. My jacket was too much, but it was too chilly here to go without. Nevertheless, I walked from my room to Hackescher Markt just to see the city and feel its stones pulse against my feet.
At Tor Str., near the White Trash cafe with its roaring chinese lions in front, I stopped for a schawarma. I was hungry though really I did not want food. I wanted something else that was just not here.
The smells of chile, fresh, dried, toasted, and ground still wanted to hold my palate. But I needed food. I needed something to drink. I was stumbling a bit from hunger.
Conveniently an Arab fast food place looked at me while I was thinking it strange and very White Trashy that faux stone lions were by the door of that restaurant and club for touring and local bands. It works, but I would not have expected it up front. As my mind slowly let go of that idea I saw the Arab Imbiss staring. A man sat at a table outside and ate something in pita.
Why not, I thought. It will be fun to see how their food compares with the Arab tacos in Puebla. Inside the door, a spit of meat grilled against a flame, just like in Puebla. And both spits were Arab and both far from where the sounds of Arabic fill bazars, streets and TV.
In Puebla I had a long conversation with a colleague from Andalucia, named Isidoro. First over breakfast and then against a wrought ironed window over sandwiches, wine, cheese, olives and alfajores, at the cocktail gathering that closed the conference, we spoke of Arabs and Al-andalus. He told me how the Andalusian culture, that flourished under them, spread to Morocco and to the rest of Spain, as well as America. Even the Christian monarchs of the Spanish north, while laying plans to drive the caliphs and mullahs out, still adopted Andalusian ways. At a time when Galician language from the wet north reigned supreme in poetry and art, Galicia’s rulers imitated Al-Andalus.
Now, here in Berlin, where people related to the Goths and Franks developed their own world, an Arab outpost more common than McDonalds or Starbucks calls me in. While two customers sit close leaning inward over a table and forget that people know English, the man behind the counter slices thin strips of meat from the standing, slowly rotating cone and heats a pocket of bread.
“I went on a date with a German man. He was dark and horny.” The two men kept talking while I dropped my book on a table and claimed a coke, their voices disappearing from ear.
“Would you like all the salad and sauce?” the man at the counter asked in German, with a smile in his eyes, as he took my money and then gave me a fat paper wrapped bundle with sesame sauce pooled on its open top.
In Puebla I saw cones of meat on spits everywhere, as if sufi mystics had arrived with their robes spreading in whirling dance. In itself the meat did not surprise me. In Mexico City, and throughout the country, even now in Salt Lake, one finds it carved from spits topped with chunks of grilling pineapple for tacos de al pastor. In Puebla, though there is no pineapple. And, surprisingly, instead of corn tortillas they use flour. Outside of the US and the Mexican north I have never seen so many flour tortillas.
As I sat and nibbled the edges of my shawarma so the sauce didn’t tumble down to my shirt, the man at the counter took a broad round flour tortilla from a pile and in a circular flip threw it into a hot oven. He took it out after a few seconds. He filled it with meat and sauce and rolled it into what, to me, looked like a burrito but here thanks to the Turks is called a dürüm döner. The main difference between it an my shawarma was that it came in a tortilla and mine in a bread pocket. Oh yeah, it also had more and different sauces.
In Puebla, they took the tortillas, some large and some small, and filled them with sliced meat before rolling them in the tortilla and placing it on a plate. Sauce and salad (onions and radishes) are on the table, along with sliced limes. The sauce is of roasted, dark chile with the warmth of a desert night. It is not like the sesame sauce, the yogurt sauce with herbs, or the sharfe soße, chile sauce, of Berlin but the idea is similar.
I do not know how they prepare the meat in Berlin, though I see onions and peppers scattered among the cuts on the spit. I do know they use lamb and chicken and maybe beef. The onion and pepper are there in Mexico too, though the meat is pork. It is marinated all night in an herb mixture of laurel, marjoram and thyme giving it a different flavor than found in Berlin. That it is pork probably relates to the heavy immigration of Christian Arabs from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine over the last hundred years. While Berlin has probably received more Muslims for whom Pork is banned.
Some times the meat is thin just cutlets prepared and skewered in a cone, other times it is ground, more like the gyro meat at home. This latter came from the Greeks who lived for centuries under Turkish rule, once the Eastern Roman Empire collapsed around the time Isabella and Ferdinand finished driving out the mores and moved into the fabled Alhambra of Granada. In the twentieth century many of them immigrated to the US from their hard-scrabble land and life. In Utah they came to work in the mines and stayed, opening many restaurants and developing dishes particular to Utah, like gyros with red sauce.
The flour tortillas in Puebla still surprise me. I wonder how much they are due to the Arab immigrants who immigrated there with their flat, wheat breads, and how much to the Spanish whose Moorish tiles and arches fill the city. Puebla is known for being very Spanish, though an island in an ocean of Nahuatl. I did not know it was also Arab, but I am strangely not surprised.
I nibble the last cucumber slice from the paper, crumple it, and finish the Coke, before dropping what’s left in the bin and rejoining the street.
New graffiti is on the walls, new posters on posts and boxes. The city is the same and yet different. I walk and walk thinking how tired I am and wondering if I dare return home to take a nap. But I fear not sleeping at night and falling, once again, into jetlag’s embrace.
I like Berlin. I really do. I like its language, both the Berlinish I still struggle with and the German that increasingly is coming back. I feel comfortable here and know I could stay. But my mind clings to Spanish. As I pass people on the street I swear I hear the rhythms and sounds of Mexico, before I listen and realize it is German, and then I feel my back tightening and my ears closing.
I am experiencing a kind of culture shock. It is not just the language, it is the way people move and interact. It is the sounds of the street, the look of the food. It is even the weather.
As I write a woman with bright, chemically scarlet hair and a green leather jacket, tight black pants and hanging chains walks by, swinging her hips. A man crosses the street in a black overcoat, black pants and black scarf pulled tightly around his neck, though its not that cold, before the train, yellow and white, rumbles by and the subway train rises from the earth.
I like this. But today I do not feel the drive to take it in. I do not feel like that little bit of stretch to speak German and understand it, even though I did in Puebla, where I walked in on a German tour group exploring the Casa de la Cultura and had an older student who had studied German converse with me for a while in that language, before returning to Spanish. I just do not feel like exploring this city with its vast riches of history and culture.
As if the pillar where the oldest synagogue in Berlin once stood before Nazis destroyed it and massacred its community were enough with its pasted history, like a reduced synopsis of German history As if real people and real lives from whom I could learn so much did not walk the streets, I feel like closing up.
Yes, these are the post-travel blues. I know them well. This is not the first time, nor the first place they have come to me.
But they are also culture shock. Sometimes culture is vivid and massive, sometimes subtle and almost hidden. But if I ever doubted its relevance, today it is there and it feels just abrasively different enough I want to return to sleep, or hop a train and go somewhere else.
I sit in Manolo’s cafe and write. My fingers try to bring back my rhythm through typing. But do not succeed. Soon the rhythm will return and I will thrill as my steps pick up the dance of Berlin.
But for now, the very real shock of travel turns me inward. I remember Isidoro’s companion saying how much the stomping feet of Mexican folk dance were like those of Seville and I remember the chiles costeños in my suitcase that I can cook up, though I do not know if my house mate has a blender to grind them into a sauce. So, I shall write some more and then go into the city, maybe to a museum, and take on Berlin.
I need to be like the Mexican man who sat next to me on the plane, his mustache close-cropped, and read in Spanish about the failure of the drug war when he wasn’t trying to chat up in accented English the German woman on the other side of him. Me he ignored, though I too was reading in Spanish and told him in that language where to find the light switch when he got frustrated from not finding it.
As the plane began its descent into Berlin her asked the woman how to say things in German. He could not get the pronunciation right, but kept trying. We landed and he pulled the parka he probably never used at home over his shoulders, too much for this Berlin fall, and repeated the words he wanted to learn. They were for meeting people. “Pleased to meet you. My name is ...” They translated his culture and his eagerness to build bridges to people here and to learn its ways and made me smile.
“Hello Berlin. I am back. It is good to see you again. My name is David. I want to be your friend.”

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