A Yoga Teacher’s Notes from Berlin
I’ve never been to Germany. It was high on my list of places I never needed to see until Jack moved there. My oldest son, Jack, is a research scientist at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Berlin. He’ll have an ACL replacement and I’m off to Berlin as chief medical officer. My understanding of Germany is based on World War II films. German is the sound of the Third Reich barking orders to kill Jews. Rob tells me if anyone says to get on the train, run.
I’m in the airport lounge on the first leg of the trip. I play the game what would I do with her or him if I only had time for one yoga pose. I observe the crowd for postural issues. I imagine their lives and habits. I am absorbed by a large woman with an enormous roll of fat between her skull and shoulders. She is drinking a keg sized Starbucks Frappacino. She has manicured navy blue nails adorned with gold flecks. She crosses her ankles but barely. Her silent husband is covered in ominous moles and black freckles. He slumps in a way that matches the weariness on his face.
I don’t sit well. I have a funky hip and a tendency to claustrophobia. I’m afraid I’ll have to throw a blanket over my head like a caged parakeet to keep madness at bay for the eight trapped hours of the longest of three flights out. The plane is fully booked four across and me on the inside. I have poorly chosen not to see a chiropractor for the pain in my shoulder blade and neck as I’m sure this unfamiliar annoyance will abate. It has not.
God shines on us all. The cabin doors close and the seat beside me is still empty. Neither of my fellow row-mates is interested in utilizing the extra leg room and so I am at once unencumbered at my feet and free to curl my legs under me this way and that. I stick a small Fiji water bottle between my shoulder blades and put pressure where needed. Eureka. In the first hour I am unstuck and pain free.
I watch the movie” Still Alice” starring Julianne Moore even though I didn’t want to see it in the theater as it sounded depressing as Hell. But I’m locked in a chunk of steel hurtling through space and I don’t know the outcome so I break my rule of not seeking sorrow. I definitely have the symptoms of memory loss that Alice had. Now I can ruminate to pass the time.
The last leg of the trip is out of Amsterdam. It is 6:00 A.M… I am handed a recycled paper box with natural dyes that describes the organic spelt bread and egg salad from happy chickens raised on organic food on a family farm. Have I landed in an enlightened universe? Who here is worried about digestion or the mental state of chickens?
Berlin is an extraordinary culture of then and now Wow. It’s easy to move about though the place is immense. It’s a feast of world cuisine where I expected piles of grey shnoodle and gravy. It is elegance and art and grit. It is both sophisticated and safe and a nod to the forward thrust of civilization though I’m told it’s endangered by a steadily growing influx of commercialism. Still, I have yet to see a soul walking with a cell phone which is my version of the demise of civilization. In fact I don’t even see a phone exposed anywhere. Au courante is the fashion of smoking. Everyone is smoking. Everyone is coughing.
Manja and Frederic invited Jack into their AirBnB and asked him to stay on as a roommate. Frederic has dreadlocks to his waist. Manja would look like Nicole Kidman if Nicole Kidman didn’t give a shit. They are a couple in their mid 30’s, partners in a film production company that makes public service films which rail at the pitfalls of capitalism. They say that travel to the U.S. would not be possible as they are probably being watched. I have been here for 7 days now and I have seen no evidence that either housemate has a phone though they must. They have no televisions. I saw no radio. There is a stack of reference books by the kitchen table that they refer to when I ask questions they can’t answer. They rarely leave the apartment. Informative and enchanting hosts, their conversation has me glued to the kitchen table into the wee hours most nights.
The apartment is on the East side, built in 1896. It’s a railroad flat. The ceilings are probably 20 feet high. The windows are massive and both the doors to the balconies and the bedroom windows are doubled like our hurricane doors in the South. The door handles come up to my collarbones. Manja and Frederick are over 6 feet as well. I feel strangely diminished by the hugeness of this place and people.
I view the ancient cupboards in the kitchen with suspicion. I am reminded of a disturbing novel about a little Jewish boy dying in a cupboard that might be like the low one on the back kitchen wall under the window where they store perishables as the walls are so insulated. I ask Frederic if this building was likely swept by the Nazis looking for Jews and he says yes. He shows me the secret places that now house a refrigerator in one and a washing machine and dishwasher in the other and says that they would have been a poor hiding place as the Nazis would go outside and check the windows to know if a hidden room existed within. Though this place is homey in a rundown farmhouse way it also feels like a retreat for ghosts.
The city is tinged with anarchy and solid in architecture that ranges from mid 17th century to Bauhaus which often resembles stacked bunkers. There are huge blocks of apartments built under Stalin called Stalinhauses. Many of the buildings are marked with gorgeous or political graffiti and the powers that be allow this vandalism. Frederic tells me that many of these were occupied buildings and by that he means occupied by squatters. There was a time that occupation was akin to possession. The city is changing though and even his neighborhood which is one of the last alternative neighborhoods is quickly falling to gentrification. Frederic defines this as a place that had shops that had useful things being replaced by new stores that have nothing anyone needs.
There are few of the massive fascist structures left though there is evidence of Hitler’s demand for tank worthy streets. The ghosts of invasion, occupation and oppression are everywhere. The people are sensitive about that. Here they are taught of their part in the Holocaust from early youth. I am told they are told that no one is innocent.
In the ten days I’ve been here there were two religious holidays celebrated with three day weekends and drunken joyfulness in a city that is 70% atheist. My roommate’s response to my question about the meaning of the holidays was that Jesus was ascending or something. Didn’t he ascend on Easter, I asked and they said that he was always ascending or descending but it seems that whenever Jesus is on the move, people will be drinking.
This alternate universe is hazardous for me. I’ve gone from Dandelion tea or a cup of half caff at home to a double or triple espresso every morning. I have forgone sleep for days. Despite the double windows in my bedroom there are streams of anarchists noisily roaming the street all night. I am in danger of returning home insane which is working for me in this nihilistic place but won’t fly in Nashville. Today I think I took my thyroid support twice by accident. I did the same thing yesterday and I am thinking of Alice in the movie who had to write a note to herself to be sure her future confused self would know how many pills to take.
With practically free health insurance my son had knee surgery in a state of the art clinic that was as elegant as an upscale modern hotel. The doctor must have done his job well because two months later Jack has almost full range of motion and if he was in any pain, he didn’t seem to notice though he never bothered with the heavy pain meds. Granted, the staff was like the cast of Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” where Woody takes his signature pot shots at the Felliniesque New Jersey Italians. Despite a general gross negligence once the doctor left the premises, a couple of thoughtful nurses and support folks came to the rescue. And I was there. Had all gone perfectly I might not have felt so necessary.
Every floor of the five story building was dedicated to orthopedics. A brightly lit space beside the therapy rooms resembled a Benetton ad for crutches. Crutches in primary colors were displayed on the singular circular pedestal in the center of a beautifully appointed haute couture shop. On the eve of Jack’s surgery when the physical therapist failed to show up, the fellow who seemed in charge of the shop went beyond his hours and job description to fill in the blanks. There was immense concern over the color crutches Jack would like which I thought was a riot until it became clear that Jack would find the ordeal more palatable once I had returned the royal blue crutches I had thought fun for the Berlin black ones.
I note that I have not been abroad or to much of anywhere in the same time frame I’ve been teaching yoga. I question my choices with distance to spare now. I wonder at my decision to remain in Nashville when I had the opportunity to build on early success to become a traveling yoga professional. Then again for most of our 21 years I was contentedly raising kids, enjoying a successful career and surrounded by good friends. Beyond that the strangeness of Southern culture satisfied my taste for the unusual and interesting. Southern culture is quickly disappearing in Nashville now. Maybe it’s timing that makes this distant world so appealing.
There are more notes from Berlin but I’m not inclined to write a travel blog. And there are stories better left to memory. There are characters that made a lasting impression on me but they are profiles for another time. I had the good fortune to travel to a loved one and fall in love with a place I was horrified by for most of my life.