Sunday, November 22, 2009

Of Leaves, Paté, and other Tiny Things

Tiny things often seem so inconsequential. And, they probably are for most intents and purposes.
No I am not thinking about the leaves that have mostly fallen off the trees, leaving naked arms prepared for winter’s weight. They are like a fall sweater for sidewalks, if they are not blown or raked into piles. Yesterday, it seemed piles were everywhere I looked. They will soon be gone, but right now they are there.

Even the museum in Spandau’s citadel, built by baroque rulers in the Italian style to control access between the Baltic Sea and the reaches of the great Spree river once castles were no longer effective, has its piles of leaves. Someone pushed them aside, so they are hidden under defensive arches in back corners, perhaps in hope that tourists would not see them. But they are there, a refreshing pile of normality in an overly kitschy museum.
More than the massive walls, the moat, or the marble statues congregated in a back yard, the most impressive part of the citadel was the nuclear power plant that like a vase for steam plumes, towered over it. The famous prison camp has been demolished in fear of Neo-Nazi politics. The Citadel, which is really amazing, seems mired in some sort of narrative stalemate that does not allow it to be other than folksy. So the White nuclear facility draws the eye, if one does not look at the leaves.
Trees would clutter the view, if they still wore their leaves. Only the steam plume would stand clear. But with leaves on the ground, the pale conical inverted pyramid on top of a regular pyramid claims the view.
Berlin has absorbed Spandau. It is now a reluctant suburb with lots of elderly people. Little kept me there, and as the train drew me back to the core of the city, I looked at the quality tags that lined every available surface, as if there had been a convention of sprayers from all over who competed to lay out their best tags on this route. And, I saw the leaves. Before we reached the urban walls of house-blocks, the tracks moved through trees. The leaves covered the undergrowth, which poked through here and there.
I thought of how they would decay over the winter and the following year to fertilize the ground. I wondered how long they would actually take to fully decay, and I wondered how the undergrowth could survive the annual weight of leaves covering it and blocking it from the sun. Then, I looked at the leaves again. I realized they would hold up the snow above the ground, leaving a hidden clear world, perhaps slightly above freezing, a winter ecosystem of relative warmth. They would help plants and rodents survive. Never before had I seen leaves in that way.
But this is not about leaves, important though they are and tempting as it is on this cloudy day, to write more about them. I came here this morning planning to write about how my pace was altered by my trip to Mexico. I am over the culture shock and resistance. I have thrown myself once again into German, and even more so. But, it has not been easy to make myself write. My wheels have spun a lot, if my writing is a car, as if on lots of wet leaves or leaves ensnared in ice.
Yesterday, however, I sat in a cafe on Danziger Straße, with the fun name of Slörmi, and forced myself to dig out the leaves and ice under my wheels. As I listened to the parrots play in their large enclosure by the back door, and young parents and children come in for their Saturday morning coffee, I began constructing planks to provide some traction for my wheels.
But the cafe got crowded and I restless, so I left for Savigny Platz. I had been meaning to go there, because it is famous for its cafes, but I had not been there yet. Two things got me to head towards there, besides the kids and parrots now clamoring for space in Slörmi: I remembered seeing some interesting graffiti on the platform as the train passed through that I wanted to look at more closely and I needed to re-look at an article about Savigny as part of making my planks.
Savigny was an important, nineteenth century German jurist and leader. He is useful to me, right now, because of the bases he laid for international private law and his thinking around the state in relationship to the law. I know this seems far from the Bolivia and religious change I am supposed to be writing about, but I do not think it is. We shall see if my book can show that.
On my way to Savigny’s platz, I walked across Alexanderplatz to get from the U-Bahn station to the S-Bahn station. I could have done it all underground, but the sunny day made me not want to be a mole negotiating tunnels under ground, and hidden spaces under leaves above ground. I needed fresh air and light.
The platz is filled with wooden kiosk all around the famous East German fountain on which people were tacking tinsel and ribbon, wrapping paper, and Christmas trees, for a Christmas market soon to open. The Gallery’s windows were overwhelmed by crowds of people looking at the mechanical figures waving out at them. “But it’s so cute” I overheard one grandmother say, as her stern faced husband dragged her away.
A cluster of roast Bratwurst vendors, their hips in between storage and glowing flame, shouted out a a gaggle of young women in front of me. “You need my bratwurst. Come on. You want one.” The women giggled and closed rank. The boldest of the group looked at them and said “Too early for lunch. We need breakfast.” With nervous laughter a florid faced vendor who looked older than the rest said “But bratwurst is good for breakfast too.” The women muttered about bratwurst for breakfast and moved on.
I looked past them and saw a fifteen foot tall figure of a soldier moving through the crowd and waving down to the children on the ground. On his back he had a rainbow flag. I took a few pictures, though the setting on my camera had shifted from my bag’s movement and the pictures are out of focus.
The soldier saw my camera and came to talk with me. His name is Michael and he is part of a collective opposed to the war in Afghanistan. Germany is fighting there as part of NATO’s commitment and there is a lot of unhappiness about that here.
Not only have German youths been killed but a controversy opened when German troops called in US air support and Afghan civilians lost their lives. Germany has built a resolutely anti-war and anti-aggression political culture. Berlin is filled with reminders, politically constructed reminders, of the horrors of war. People constantly see the price their city paid for the last world war.
Savignyplatz, was a bit of a disappointment. Like so many things hyped for tourists, its cartoon is far better than the reality. I can see why the graffiti artists are drawn to comics as an inspiration for their art. So much of our world seems hyperreal. The reality of a pre-adolescent Roma boy from Eastern Europe roaming through a coffee house asking every table “speak English” as table after table denies his request, knowing that he is begging for change with a large, hand written story in English, seems far less than the graffito in brilliant colors calling for a world without borders or countries, or that which asks if hip hop is dead.
I stayed in the platz for a good while, over a pizza diavola with salami, arrugula, and cherry tomatoes, speaking of the hyperreal, and read about Savigny. He was not a disappointment. Despite the weakness of sovereignty in the contemporary nation state, we are no where close to the world without borders, though we can dream of it in the universal colors of superheroes. Savigny, curiously, makes that dream possible in his arguments about the state and its laws depending on people and their support, as well as his arguments about private law developing from people’s actions and not, per se, legislation. Although this may seem a given to the Anglo Saxon mind, it is simply not and Savingy is, as a result, important for my thinking about a Bolivia that has different roots.
Parenthetically, one thing I so enjoy about Berlin is how much the Prussian state nourished thinkers, like Savigny, who have been important in my background and training. I love place names based on them. It makes them so tangible and so much less academic. Even poets, such has Heinrich Heine, find streets named for them. The intellectual culture is brought to ground. Tiny things like that build a whole that seems so lacking at home.
In Utah, occasionally a building will be named after a thinker, but rarely. Normally they are bought and sold. Unless they win a nobel prize you will not find a thinker, a scholar, a poet immortalized in place. Our culture is tied to other tiny things. We have a very different social formation, even if there too leaves fall, make piles, and even protect a hidden world of rodents, insects, plants, seed, and intellectuals.
End of parentheses, soap box is put away.
After I absorbed what I needed from Savigny, I walked away from the tracks towards the south. While walking, looking at playgrounds and graffiti, and thinking about how to write, how to place my planks so my wheels would go forward and not spin, I stumbled on a bookstore I recognized. It is well known in the ex-pat community for its substantial collection of English books. I wanted to go in and buy something to entertain me.
But I did not. Books are heavy. I only have a little more than a week to go here and will have to pack and travel. Already, I will probably be overweight with the books I have bought. I am tempted by some Weber in German, but I do not know. I walked on, after looking briefly at a flyer announcing the English theatre in Berlin, part of a rich ex-pat culture under cover of German.
Suddenly I found my self on the famous Ku’dam street with its upscale shopping corridor. I walked a bit and looked at the Christmas trees and ribbons, before turning towards the subway and Uhlandstr. But I needed to write, I needed those planks. So I bought a bottle of water and a brownie and hid on the upper floor of a Starbucks. I went into the cartoon empire my home culture celebrates, and wrote. Occasionally I would listen to some people sitting near to see if they were speaking Dutch or Danish, and I looked at the multiple reflections of the Starbucks sign in the window. Through a different window I saw a very attractive blond woman poke her head out and look. After awhile she was joined at the window by a corpulent man.
But I was now absorbed in my writing. The planks had their effect and my wheels were moving. I saw what I needed to write and I did. As it was getting dark I left Starbucks and, instead of getting on the Uhland subway across the street, walked to the Zoo station to take the S-train back to Alex’platz and home. I had planned to go to an English poetry festival, called Poetry Hangings this evening and wanted to get myself ready.
The poetry was very good and exposed me to styles from across the English speaking world I had not run into before. I enjoyed it. But it did feel a guilty pleasure. I have worked to not roam the expat nooks and crannies here but to keep trying in German.
This post is filled with tiny things, all important for something or other, but none of them is the one I set out to write about. When I got to the Sunday in August cafe this morning, they had put liverwurst out on their breakfast buffet. It has been years since I last ate liverwurst. When I was a kid, I could not stand its flavor. But my mother almost always had some in the refrigerator. Strangely, we also often had heavy rye bread there too. She also had kippered salmon there and pickled herrings, all little things I hated.
My mother was born in Utah, but her parents were not. She grew up in an immigrant household. Her native language was English, but she understood both Dutch and Fries from being around her grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Seeing the liverwurst here today, I realized that even though in the United States, my mother raised me and my brothers in a culture from a land she had never visited. Liverwurst, and the rest, tied her to the continent I am now in.

I hated it, like so many other things that then seemed strange. In my grandfather and his slight accent I could see foreign; it was quaint and unthreatening, but the liverwurst my mother would put on the table, that I just called very unoriginally the worst of liver and they all knew how I hated liver, was threatening.
That tiny little bit of cultural struggle had been invisible to me, although very important to a kid wanting to eat pizza, spaghetti, and hamburgers, a kid wanting to read Superman and Spiderman though comic books were banned in my home. This morning I slathered my roll with liverwurst and bit in. It wasn’t bad. I did not find the flavor too strong or threatening. Instead it was comforting. It reminded me of my mother who I haven’t seen for fifteen years. And it was fifteen years ago last October 25th she died.
Tiny things, a day in October, some pate on a plate, leaves on the street, that same street’s name. I am still an American and these tiny things are just so much more than their material reality. But the cafe is filling. It is nearing noon. I am done, the street calls.


  1. I like this post, David. Wandering from place to place, taking it all in, you have had a good experience there.

    I remember the SSSR meeting 15 years ago when you returned to SLC, just moments after arriving, to go to your mother's bedside. It is hard to believe that it has been 15 years. I think that one of the things I like best about your trip is the chance you've had to connect (reconnect?) with that part of your heritage. I can relate to it, with my own inexplicable desire to see a Denmark that I somehow identify with even though I've never known it.

    :-) Mike

  2. Hi Mike. That was a difficult time you remember. I wish I could have stayed at the meetings. I hope you get to go to Denmark. I think it is something American that so many of us feel a passion to return to those places from which our family came. America often seems so rootless, though I know i have some deep roots there. But this other part pulls. I wish dual nationality were somehow possible; that would somehow help make sense of the mixed identity I know I feel, even though I have no doubt I am an American, for good or bad.
    Even today I said "Ich bin Amerikaner" when someone asked. At least I do not know of a jelly-filled donut also identified by that term.

  3. David,
    love the story about the Leberwurst. How complicated and simple our family stories are.