Berlin Contagion

Berlin is contagious. I can’t avoid it. I can’t resist it. I can’t conquer it. When the city is finished with me I ache.

Berlin is a seasonal infection. Every spring for the last three years I have been Berlined: once on holiday, once on a field trip, and most recently for a conference. My immune system still can’t shake it. It lingers in my psyche, flaring up when the crocuses unfold and the ice cream parlors re-open. I still haven’t developed immunity—I know I’ll be Berlining again someday because I haven’t yet experienced the city’s legendary museums (or have I?).

A springtime case of Berlin manifests with certain classic symptoms:

I find myself smiling at subway cars because they look like they just escaped from the toy store. I think Berlin’s elves cobbled them together from yellow-enameled mint tins.

I make up prequels for the lives of the subway-riders. Those girls wearing pastel windbreakers and glitter at noon: they’ve either been clubbing since last night or they’re planning to dance until daybreak. They travel through time on the subway: if they haven’t slept all night, they’re still riding through my yesterday and I’m staring at them from their tomorrow.

In the Tiergarten, I lose track of time once and for all. Later I learn that time drowned in a lake of daffodils and was disposed of in the lagoon.

At the Holocaust-Mahnmal (a Mahnmal is more than a memorial—it is a cautionary tale), I lose the third dimension as well. The Mahnmal is a field of concrete pillars that crest and dip like a frozen sea. To cross the Mahnmal, one can either go over or under, leaping from pillar to pillar or wandering through the labyrinth of their shadows. I choose the labyrinth. Deep amongst the pillars, the ground slopes towards Hades and I am not tall enough to see above the rim of the pillars, to see the world beyond the monument. Here, the third dimension is snuffed out, leaving me in a two-dimensional maze of light and shadow. Other explorers dart across the gaps between stones. They exist for a second, then vanish, compressed into a dimension I can no longer see.

However, I may be the only one who can still see the Gedächtniskirche. ‘Siehst du mich?’ it asks in modest sans-serif (Do you see me?). The decapitated spires have scabbed over with a crust of the quotidian. Only the recent defusal of a WWII era bomb near Düsseldorf reminds us that the past is still explosive.

Even history’s dragons haven’t yet been squelched. In the Nikolaiviertel, I visit a statue I’ve been sweet on since I first met him two years ago. St. George is as dogged as ever, his hair rakishly tousled, his tunic plastered with sweat. However, it’s the dragon who is the real stunner in this tableau. His scales are faceted as precisely as diamonds and his spine is lithe as a whip.

Does the city know I can’t hold a grudge against it, no matter how it teases? Strolling up Schönhauser Allee, I hear a trill of giggles from a balcony and I watch two little heads disappear behind a railing. When the arc of water splashes across my cheek, I glance back just in time to make eye contact with the nozzles of their spray bottles. I laugh. Well played, pranksters. Those two girls are just a bucket away from a prank my brother and I dared from a balcony at that very age.

In Berlin I read 19th century façades like faces. On my way to the café that lures me back every year, I walk past a shop I’ve never noticed before. Perhaps it doesn’t want to be noticed. The shop is called ‘Dinge, die die Welt nicht braucht’ (Things that the world doesn’t need), and sells hand-carved wooden figurines: characters for the family crèche and other nearly extinct creatures.

Most dramatic of my symptoms is the insubordination. Sprawled out in the Tiergarten with a pack of fellow Fulbrighters, I get drunk on sunshine. When they put on their shoes to return to the conference hall, I announce I am going rogue. After a dark winter, even a modest dose of daylight would make me tipsy and I’ve been sipping sunlight all afternoon.They leave to listen to more white males praise themselves. I stay outside where wild things belong. Playing hooky makes me feel like a god. I am captain of my Monday. After an effervescent evening in downtown Berlin, I wander back past the monuments. Dipped in liquid dusk, the Berliner Dom and Brandenburger Tor look delectable. Sunset drips down the marble in streams of caramel and melted butter.

As twilight sifts down over the Tiergarten, the birds serenade me, singing nocturnes. The lagoon is a shard of black jade and in it I see my reflection: the picture of a rogue-patient, delirious with Berlin-fever.

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