Kein Ost, Kein West, Nur Uns (Or: Walls)

 

untitledWalls was written as part of a Creative Writing assignment at my home university. The theme was on “Boundary Riding”, as in, moving between fiction and documentary, commentary and creation. Walls is my (slightly fictionalised) account of my brief time in Berlin, a time where I cam to grips with the walls that define, restrict, free us. 

Für Berlin. Ich liebe dich. Bleib fest.


“No East,
No West,
Only Us.”

– Graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Is that true? Is that ironic? Is that satirical? Is that beautiful? I asked myself as I stood, with wet sunlight dripping onto my shoulders, in front of the world’s second most famous wall. The Mauer once stood for the very division of East and West that the anonymous graffiti writer had been rallying against with their poetic, spray-paint words. That symbol of complete, totalitarian division in front of me had, decades ago, become a canvas, a blank page to be angrily and ecstatically written upon. It had become a monument not to nationalism or fascism, but to humanities endless struggle to come together as one in creative prosperity.

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“It was struggle and pain.” said the girl in perfect English. “Though I think it was a bit too… what’s the word? Pretentious?” “Yeah, definitely. I feel that.” He replied. “But I dug it heaps anyway.” We’d just watched the first act of the night in total confusion, underneath a lattice of black steel, with beers in hand and harsh vibrations running up through our legs. The artist had stripped herself down to nothing but bare, goose-bumped skin and leather face mask before slowly and ghoulishly crawling towards to the crowd, shoulder blades piercing through her skin. She screeched and wailed and moved to the thump thump thump of alien music. After this display of complete, almost spiritual nakedness, I began to feel nervous in my own skin. Underneath my clothes was a body much like the one that had been crawling around my feet not a few minutes earlier. Underneath the facade of black shirt, black jeans and black boots was a body completely and equally naked. “Well, I’ve never seen or heard anything like that before.”

Berghain, Am Wriezener Bahnhof, 10243 Berlin, Germany, is a bizarre world, the sort of hidden and guarded place that would have been the rumoured home of powerful witches in the middle ages. My two backpacking Aussie mates and I had decided to try our luck at entering the exclusive nightclub the moment we’d all set foot in Germany. All roads led to Berlin for techno rebels. We thought we were prepared, that we were ready for what lied within any club. I mean, how different could it really be compared to something like, I don’t know… Sugar or Electric Circus? Within this hip, East Berlin venue, with its industrial chic aesthetic, all-black nights and bouncers that would not look out of place in a Mad Max film, we swiftly found ourselves lost within an ever-shifting reality limited only by high, grey walls and stone pillars. It is a place where all of our traditional walls began to blur, where artistic and personal laws were violated and stretched.

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On the approach to Berghain we were greeted with the intimidating sight of many high windows, all blacked out and blind. The chain linked fences that surrounded the venue had been twisted ever so slightly outwards by the weight of thousands of potential revelers, foreign and local. The whole image of the place on first impression was of a cold, emotionless human abattoir… and yet it was totally alluring. It was irresistible. We had to get in. We’d heard all the stories about the fickle and unreadable German bouncers, prepared ourselves in our blackest and most unassuming clothes and even discussed the possibility of splitting up in the line to increase our chances of entry. But even then, after taking the “Ooh” Bahn across the city and arriving at the fabled unholy land, we felt totally unprepared. The borders of the Nation of Berghain were just too grand, too imposing. It was a place designed to repel invading marauders, a castle we thought we couldn’t possibly take.

Once we broke into this rogue nation, after slipping past the guards with much less trouble than we’d expected, things begin to change… rapidly. Far below a roof, veined with heavy ducts and pipes, was an altar of sound. It was a shrine built around a bare stage and lined with absurdly large amplifiers. There was just nothing about Berghain that didn’t scream “industrial”, nothing that let you feel safe and comfortable. It wass all hard edges and steel and, like any closed environment, the life within it had evolved in strange and unique ways.

I lost my companions among the crowd on the way to get a cheap beer from a bar decorated with jelly moulds of human corpses. Within the walls of concrete and the swirling mass of people, I became acutely aware of the bodies around my own and of just how easy it is to lose one’s sense of physicality amongst a seething mass of ecstatic people, dim lights and monolithic speaker systems. The night flew by quickly. It was a wildfire spark of an evening. After a few beers and an hour or two or all-encompassing noise, the limits of my body began to break away. I was dissolved, slowly and happily into the general solution.

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“You wanna go or stay here a bit longer?” “Nah nah, let’s go. The DJ’s finished anyway. Just let me finish my beer.” I didn’t want to let three Euros go to waste. Chug chug chug. Despite all the visual evidence to the contrary, visitors to the walled nation of Berghain are allowed to leave freely. We were free to forget what happened, we were free to bottle it or write about it, we were free to do whatever the hell we wanted to the experience. The story of the night would, in short time, become a point of pride for my small group. “Yeah,  we made it inside Berghain”, we’d tell people, as if that was something to be properly proud of. We created a story, a fiction, a representation of a real-life adventure. It was a wall constructed around history, one that blocked people from knowing the real truth of the experience, the truth of total confusion and abandoned senses. We talked up the bizarre style of the venue, the difficulty of gaining entrance, the strangeness of the acts performing within it. Our story of Berghain became as Berghain as Berghain. And now, this story has finally crystallised onto the page you’re holding right now. Without even realising it you’ve crossed a boundary, the fourth wall.

Willkommen in die Buchseite. Viel spaß!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yet, the Berlin Wall remains. Though now in pieces, slowly decaying into rubble, it still stands in many places throughout the great German city. It is a constant reminder that walls do exist and that they exist because we, or people just like us, build them to organise, limit and control the flow of history.

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We stumbled onwards for the rest of the night, ranting and raving about the acts we’d just seen and the potential places we could go for a bit of an after party. The night was still young. We were joined by an American expat that we’d met at our hostel earlier in the night. He was a tall, gaunt sort of guy who wore his North Face windbreaker like a second skin. He puffed away at a cigarette constantly, and when he wasn’t, his fingers became restless. He told us he was a writer.

“I’m hungry, dudes. I have a powerful need for salt.” I stopped for pommes mit mayo at a dingy joint, something made from an old shipping container. Hardly a powerful building of brick and grit like Berghain, it was the heart-filled business of a man with thick black arm hair, dark, sunken eyes and otherwise flawless olive skin. Inside the tin shop, he sweated and toiled, preparing modest meals for the wandering youth of Berlin’s night. “Zwei fünzig, bitte.” “Where to now, felllas?” “There’s this one place that everyone posts about on Trip Advisor. It’s supposed to be super fucking fun. It’s a drag place.” “What’s it called?” “Barbie Deinhooves, bro.”

Barbie Deinhoff’s, Schlesische Straße 16, 10997 Berlin, Germany (pronounced with a hard “hoff”), was only a few minutes away from the makeshift chip shop. Our American friend seemed to know the way. To reach it we had to make another set of symbolic and strangely profound crossings that none of us really realised until much later. Not only did we have to cross the expanse of der Spree, that powerful current of water carved so many thousands of years ago by unknowable hand as a natural, tribal line, but we had to cross a barrier that would have been thought impenetrable during the dark days of the Cold War: The Berlin Wall.

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The East Side Gallery is, perhaps, the most famous piece of the original Wall still intact. It’s that part you’ll see in all the tourist brochures, covered in paintings of pashing pollies, vivid dancing Harings and Volkswagens exploding from behind layers of brick. It’s the world’s largest canvas, and its most bloody. “This section was moved a while ago.” said the American. He stubbed his cigarette out on the pavement and let his backpack drop to the ground. “It used to be on the death strip. You know, all bullets and shouting in fucking German or Russian or whatever language it was.” It was impossible for me to imagine raking gunfire, sporadic explosions, shouting, screaming or conspiratorial whispering then. Instead, in the eery quiet of the night, it felt as if I were walking through a fine-art gallery, silent and respectful of the artworks that rested there. Our American friend, anonymous to me now, took a huge silver paint marker from his backpack and shook it violently. It suddenly dawned on me what kind of writer he was. After checking in both directions for any Polizei or hidden Eastern Bloc assassins, he moved to the wall and proceeded to violate it. He reached his hand through the chain-link fence that protected the artworks and, with a few swift hand movements and subtle arching motions, he immortalised his pen-name upon the bloody remnants of history. “You’ve done this before?” He asked. “Yeah. All the time. No one’s gonna stop you. They say it’s illegal and put up a fence, but everyone knows we aren’t gonna stand for that. Stopping us is like bringing back the Wall. That’s what it’s here for now… Artistic freedom.”

And so we walked out of East Berlin and into the West. No secret police drove by to stop us or demand papers. No gunfire rang out. No mines exploded at our feet. We just walked. In a few minutes (after admiring the night-time beauty of the river and its neon mirror) we reached our final stop for the night. Pink. Kitsch. Barbie Deinhoff’s. In the space of a few hours we’d moved from the warlike world of East Berlin’s most notorious club to a comfortably decadent one. We drank and laughed and talked as much as language barriers could allow to all the beautiful people.

“I take it for granted. There is no place like this where I come from. Sometimes it is hard, like learning German and English, but I feel more home here than anywhere before.” said the impeccably groomed Swedish man we’d met in the plushest corner of the bar. He’d told us that he was waiting for a date… a date that had arrived drunk and with several friends. Apparently, he’d left after realising he wasn’t in for an easy lay. “Fuck that guy. He came all the way just to turn around? He doesn’t deserve you!” We all toasted to that. “It’s funny that, isn’t it?” I had to ask. The group finished their drinks in bubbling silence. “That just because we’re in a certain part of the world we can act differently. To be honest, I don’t reckon I’d ever go out somewhere like this in Australia.” “Aber, es ist Berlin.” said the Swede. He giggled as he forced out the syllables that were so foreign to all of us around the table. “It’s special, isn’t it? We can come from all over the world and end up drinking together at a drag bar.”

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Walls are built out of anger, fear and pride. They are symbols of nationalism, strength, weakness. They are maintained for a time then broken apart or repurposed. They are necessary, totally useless, ever-shifting. Walls will be knocked down. Walls will be built. Walls will become bridges and gates.

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The next day I watched as my friends from the U.S., Australia and Sweden disappeared into the spiderweb rail system and out into the wider world. They left Berlin, with its damp pavement, its glittered walls and its ferocious sounds, towards Hamburg, towards Switzerland, towards Hungary… they could have been going anywhere and, because of agreements made between some stuffy old folks decades ago, they were completely free to do so. The only problems they would have faced moving between these places were the bus and train fares. But I chose to remain.

For one more day.

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I had to pay my respects. And so I walked, guided as always by my trusty Motorola and the ever-watching eye of Google Maps, to Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, Bernauer Straße 111, 13355 Berlin, Germany. I walked among the rusting pillars that marked the original location of the Wall, sat upon the grass that would have once been covered in dust and blood and watched as the morning sun slowly rose over the liberated cityscape. Inside the memorial gallery itself, now a place of place for walls of text rather than walls of cement, I listened to the violent cries of hundreds of thousands.

“WIR WOLLEN RAUS,
WIR WOLLEN RAUS,
WIR WOLLEN RAUS.”

“WIR BLEIBEN HIER,
WIR BLEIBEN HIER,
WIR BLEIBEN HIER.”

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