Fell in Love in Berlin
Late winter now and February is a short month, so it’ll be spring soon. It started in the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin, in the 1960 building by Hanseatenweg. A beautiful brutalist building which from the outside is one large low concrete block but from the inside there is warmth. It is intimately designed with wooden pillars and wooden chairs and tables and banisters to lead you to the second floor, and there’s low ceilings so it never gives the artworks a grandiose feeling but rather like you’re seeing them in a friend’s house.
Sasha walked through the entrance and up the stairs holding the banister which felt smooth as it glided below his fingers and along his palm. He had his ticket in his left coat pocket and passed it to the attendant. She took the ticket, inspected it thoughtfully then handed it back and smiled as he saw her click a tally counter that she held in the palm of her own hand.
He walked inside the exhibition hall, which was blacked out save for the small lights which were installed above each photograph, and everyone who was already there spoke very quietly and moved slowly and no one paid him any attention.
He chose to walk through the exhibition clockwise, which was a good place to start because it started chronologically so he could see the progression of the artist. The early photographs were in black and white and then in rough colours with lots of blur and grain. They were inspiring because despite the different subject matter they didn’t look all that different to photographs he would take and so it made it seem possible. These early pictures were of drag performers who looked like they were close with the artist and there was an intuitive ease with which they held themselves and a level of trust which came through the image.
As he moved around it seemed like it skipped to the artists later career and the subjects were still drag performers but this time in what looked like Thailand because they lacked the blur and the grain since they were shot digitally. He liked these pictures a lot, they reminded him of the colours of cinema from that region and he loved the pinks the greens and the washed-out blue undertones and he liked the performers confidence. How they transformed themselves as they fixed their make up in the mirror with a dozen lightbulbs lighting up every part of their faces and then stepping out and performing in full costume with feathers on their arms. But the shots despite being filled with colour and personality were subdued and intimate and quiet.
When he walked to another room in the far back of the exhibition space, he saw recognisable images, the ones the artist was known for. Ones he saw advertised before he even bought the ticket. A lot of them were from a relationship that the artist lived through and there were pictures of her with a black eye, of naked bodies embracing and of her lying in bed while her partner smoked a cigarette, sitting and completely enveloped in the yellow light.
He used to want to exhibit such photos that he had too, but he didn’t feel brave enough.
The famous images were mixed with other late career work, of the night and trees in the winter light, in soft focus with a lot of shutter blur evoking the roughness of the early work.
He stayed in the space for a couple of minutes, going through all the images twice and then left so someone else could be allowed in to take his space.
As he walked outside of the exhibition, he scanned his surroundings and saw the space filled with people. On the tables to his right reaching all the way to the end of the second floor, there were people holding drinks and conversations on the large leather sofas which were beside the windows that looked out onto the forest. He took one of the green bottles of beer that were being served by the gallery attendant and struck up a conversation with a man close to him and to his age and found out that he grew up in Svalbard, all the way up in the artic circle and he asked the man what it was like and what the light was like.
“I suspect they went on forever – when we -we lived in Svalbard, and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in 'em, and, they were long and clear and there were lots of stars at night. And, when it would rain, it would all turn - it- They were beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact. Um, the sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire, and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere. That's uh, neat cause I used to look at them all the time, when I was little. You don't see that. You might still see them in the desert.”
Sasha imagined what the man was saying for a couple of minutes as their conversation drifted to another topic, he asked him what he thought of the artist and if he had ever seen her work before. But as the man from Svalbard began to speak again Sasha began overhearing a conversation which sounded heated, and he looked over to one of the sofas and saw a woman in a conversation with what looked like her partner.
“Aren’t you curious about what we write about? Aren’t you curious of my perspective of the world?”
“It’s not that I’m not curious, it’s just difficult to relate to something outside of my experience.”
“I speak to you about my experience every day and listen to yours constantly.”
The conversation became more heated, which was uncommon in Germany. Sasha thought that despite the stone-faced exterior, the people in Berlin kept to themselves and were rarely rude or loud. Which is what must have come over them, because then the couple sat in silence for the longest time. He heard a deep sound of music coming from the first floor of the art gallery and he excused himself from the man from Svalbard and went downstairs catching a last look at the couple as he descended.
It was busy down there on the first floor, apparently there was an awards ceremony happening and the artist was there, but he would’ve been way too nervous to approach them either way. He admired the people who had that kind of courage but would never want to be that way and preferred not to know much about the artist at all. The crowd was a lot older than the music the DJ was playing, and they were drinking red wine and wearing long black coats that looked expensive and wearing new Nikes on their feet.
He walked up to the bar which had a long queue, thought he would get one more beer and then take the train back to his apartment. He saw a photographer going around taking pictures of the event and wondered if he should even hang around. Grabbing a beer and the glass the bartender gave him he walked to a corner of the room with some space on the floor and since he saw other people sitting down on the carpet, he found himself a seat and sat there too.
He observed people from this low perspective watching their conversations that were polite and not too loud. He heard a voice above him utter a phrase, but he couldn’t make it out. He turned his head to the side and saw the woman from upstairs ask him if she can sit there close to where he was sitting and he told her that she could.
She sat down, dropping her bag and her coat beside him. She took out her phone and scrolled through a couple of different apps, then she checked her messages and then the weather app and then frustrated put the phone away. She looked at the queue for the bar which had grown much larger since Sasha sat down and then looked at him sitting beside her.
“I don’t mind sharing if you get the next one”.
He poured out half of the beer into the glass and then passed it to her. She thanked him, asked if he didn’t mind and then took a sip.
“You spoke English to me”.
“Do you speak German?’
“I initially speak English to everyone; you have people from all over coming to Berlin.”
Her phone buzzed and she looked at the notification for a moment and Sasha glanced over and saw that it was a text message. She put the phone down beside herself and it softly sank into the carpet. As she watched it sink, she wondered how they kept the carpet clean with so many people coming in wearing shoes. She looked at her own shoes which stuck out slightly behind her in the way she sat and saw a layer of mud and leaves from walking in the Berlin winter.
She looked at her watch, it was just past six pm, but it looked like it was near midnight out of the windows. She looked at Sasha again.
“I heard that she’s here tonight.”
“I heard that too, but I haven’t seen her yet. Have you?”
“No, but I saw another photographer I like. I went up to him, he was very nice.”
She introduced herself as Nour, and he told her that he was born Alexander, but has been going by Sasha for a long time.
Sasha asked her a question he knew the answer to.
“Are you with someone?”
“Yeah, but he’s not really with me.”
Nour finished the glass she was drinking. Looked at the long queue, at the clientele which were all so much older and their dress code.
“When you eventually decide to go home, which direction are you going?”
“I live in Neukolln”.
“I’m in Kreuzberg. When are you going home?”
“I didn’t have any concrete plans. Going to this was my only plan and I’ve done it now”.
They stood up off the carpet and put on their coats and then remembered to take the glass and the one bottle of beer off the floor and they put it onto one of the tall wooden shelves that lined some of the concrete banisters that stabilised the hall. Then they walked out of the building out of the doors and into the wooded area that surrounded the gallery. They walked in silence because they didn’t know what to say to each other and the night was very cold considering they were going into spring soon, but the cold meant they didn’t need to say much at all and not feel awkward about it.
They walked for fifteen minutes from the wooded area to the U-Bahn station and then walked up the stairs to wait for the train which would take them in the same direction. There were some people who were smoking on the platform and drinking glass bottles of club mate. It would be eight minutes until the U8 came.
Nour was looking through her phone again and scrolled for a minute before putting the phone in her coat pocket.
She asked him.
“Do you plan on staying in Berlin long?”
He thought for a moment and then he answered clearly.
“I do like it here, I’ve been here a couple of weeks now and I have a couple of more weeks to go, if I still like it, I’ll try to find another room”.
“Did you come for any reason?”
“Just to see it.”
“But you came in the winter”.
“I’ve been to Berlin three times now, always in the winter.”
“You chose the worst time to come.”
Sasha looked up at the time that was left until the train would come and it would be another three minutes.
“How long have you been in Berlin?”
“I came here right after I finished school, it’ll be almost ten years now.”
The yellow train came, and they boarded it, and the seats were full, so they stood opposite each other and spent most of the journey in silence because the train was loud. For the duration of the journey, they looked at the different stops out of the train’s doors and windows. But in the moments between they looked at each other and the clothes they both wore, trying to create an idea of the person they were now spending time with. Sasha asked her.
“Do you like it here?”
As they reached their spot and walked out of the U-Bahn, Sasha saw a man in the corner of the station shooting up in plain sight and saw that Nour paid it no attention, no one else did either. When Sasha asked her about it, she acknowledged that she did see it but told him that it doesn’t necessarily happen more here, just that there’s less stigma for the users and they feel that they can do it in plain sight and not out on the street in the cold. He was ashamed that he couldn’t stop looking when he saw him there.
They left the station and into the cold and the snow came heavily now covering the city in a hazy mist where only the blue light of the U-Bahn station symbol and the surrounding shops provided enough light to navigate. Nour knew that it was only seven, that she didn’t want to go back home yet but a drink seemed too intimate, and she didn’t want to talk anymore tonight.
“Do you want to go see a movie? Or do you need to go home”.
“No, it’s only seven, but if you need to go home. That’s okay.”
“I don’t want to go home.”
They walked through the snow to Babylon Kreuzberg and bought two tickets to see a film which came out a few years before. It was a story about a couple living in Poland and in exile through the events of the Cold War. It was a short movie less than ninety minutes long and the only subtitles the cinema provided were in German and the film was in Polish which Sasha didn’t speak but could make out a few words. He spent the entire time looking at the imagery and the way the shots were composed, the lights, the shadows and the faces. At one point he saw Nour crying, and it happened towards the end of the movie as the couple sat in the bathroom together and the camera was slightly askew, and they were at a profile looking at one another and the events of the film had finally brought them to the point of not wanting to go on any longer. Sasha would watch this film ten more times in his life.
When the film ended, they sat all the way through until the credits as Sasha waited for Nour to say something. She didn’t say anything and when Sasha checked the time, he saw it was closer to ten. He chose to make a decision to leave. He didn’t know much about her personal life but knew that he wanted to spend more time with her in the few weeks that he had left in Berlin.
“Shall we head out?”
Nour nodded and they left the cinema and while the night was dark before they entered it now that they were leaving it was even darker and Sasha knew that it would be a good time to leave. “I have to go now.”
Nour nodded again.
“We could see a movie again sometime?”
“Okay, that would be nice.”
He didn’t want to make the first move and he was about to turn and leave before he saw her take out her phone in a way that seemed genuine.
“If you give me your number, I can send you a message.”
Sasha nodded now and typed his number in.
“It was nice to meet you.”
Before making a decision to hug or shake hands he turned around and left and got the U8 back to Neukolln.
He woke up forgetting that it was a Sunday and forgot that he hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day. He threw the closest hoodie onto himself and a pair of matching sweatpants and walked to the kitchen hoping that there was something. In the kitchen he checked the cupboards where the was an egg carton with no eggs inside, a bag of oats, dried spaghetti. He had eaten porridge with water before, never again. At least there was coffee.
It would be a few hours before a nearby café opened for breakfast. He listened to the sound of the gas heating up the metal moka pot as he watched the courtyard fill up with snow and listened to the sound of the distant trains of which the sound came from behind him. The sound of the coffee finishing coincided with the sound of the train leaving like a dream that he left behind and he poured the coffee into a cup, filled the rest with hot water and drunk his coffee in the cold kitchen, watching his breath and trying to wake up to start the day.
He kept his phone face down listening to any buzz that might come through as he ate his breakfast of eggs in the nearby café that opened and that he made sure to go to early to skip the queues and he stayed there until past one to the annoyance of others, but a message didn’t come through. Not for the whole of the Sunday and not for the other days of the week until he forgot about it, but he made sure not to go to Kreuzberg in case he bumped into her.
No, the message from Nour came Friday evening at six pm. So casual.
Hey it’s Nour, are you free tonight?
He waited half an hour to reply.
No plans tonight.
Her reply came at seven. With an address, to come for eight o’clock.
He left the apartment at nine.
Sasha saw the light coming from the small gallery on the corner of the street with people outside smoking and inside talking. It was closer to ten now, but the space was still full, and he was glad for that. He walked closer, eager to escape the cold and turned the metal door to the gallery and opened it. He saw Nour straight away, tucked in the corner with her back to him but he knew it was her and she looked good, even better now that he didn’t know if he’d ever see her again.
He thought the best thing to do was to go straight to her, so he manoeuvred his way through the small crowd that had developed between them and was glad that her back was turned.
He then walked up closer, and the woman Nour was talking to saw him first and he felt her eyes on him as he was about to interrupt their conversation. He spoke her name firm and friendly.
She stopped her conversation and turned around and saw him there, the person she hesitated to invite but now saw him and was glad that she did. She introduced him to her friend that she was speaking to, and they made their brief introductions before her friend walked away sensing a tension and then it was just the two of them facing each other.
“This is the gallery I work in; this is the exhibition I curated.”
Sasha nodded and turned around and looked at all the work.
“Can you talk me through it?”
Nour nodded now and led him through the work beginning with the paintings. Of women, in various stages of undress, lying, in different poses, you could tell they were painted by a woman because they had no illusions about being delicate.
He didn’t like the photographs, unlike the paintings they did have illusions of being delicate and the subjects seemed too posed, too pensive and therefore didn’t elicit any emotional response from him. Words of explanation always seemed unnecessary to him and the long text at the introduction of the images proved to him that it was more of an intellectual experience for the artist and that made him disconnect even more. He never read the long text at the beginning.
From the way that Nour spoke about them he knew that she felt a similar way.
The film took up the largest space of the four walls on which the works were exhibited.
It was a video of a crumbling cinema in Beirut, Lebanon in the shadow of the war and something about the way the camera took in the space made him feel like he was there, he could have analysed it further, but he didn’t want to. In a way it devastated him until he couldn’t look at it anymore in case it lost its power over him.
He thought that maybe because he was simply beside her he could feel it more.
He turned to Nour now.
“I can see why you put them together.”
She looked fully at him now and felt seen and he didn’t look at anyone or anything else when he spoke to her but fully at her and she was happy about that. The whole week she debated messaging him, he didn’t give her anything to show that he was expecting something but could see that already he wanted to be near her and now regretted not messaging him because she wanted to be near him too.
“I have to say hello to a lot of people tonight but stay.”
She mostly stayed away from him the entire evening, which made the time run longer. But when she did glance over to see him, she saw that he was comfortable and at ease with himself talking to other people and in between the conversations, in the silences Nour could see that behind the exterior there was a much darker and more passionate version of himself that he now chose to keep hidden from the world but which he might still let out occasionally.
When everyone left it was just the two of them standing there with Nour holding the keys in her hands. Sasha sat on one of black metal chairs and looked around the white cube.
“I thought you might be going out to celebrate.”
“I did, yesterday, when we had our first night.”
There was a quiet moment then.
“I wanted it to be quiet tonight.”
Sasha adjusted himself, he wanted to sound casual when he said it, but the emotion refused to be held back and it crept in as he spoke.
“I had a space like this, and I went there every day for two months, but in the end, I couldn’t release what I looked at every day…
I’ve always been interested in people who take on a challenge, no matter how great or small, and come to terms with it, people that can take life, and have the courage, energy, and audacity not only to grab it by the horns, but to steer it as well.”
As if to break the solemnity of what he said he asked her then if she was hungry and she nodded.
“I haven’t eaten all day.”
They walked back in the direction of Sasha’s apartment, when they reached the front door of the apartment building Sasha waited for a short moment and looked over at Nour and when he saw her face he understood, and he put his key into the door and opened it and let her in.
The hallway smelt of piss, it always did but she reassured him that it was the same in her apartment building. He opened the front door and asked her to take her shoes off, since his name wasn’t on the lease.
They walked into the kitchen, and Sasha took out the few ingredients that he had in the kitchen, garlic, pasta, chili and olive oil and took out two teabags that he had brought over from London. He took out two cups, placed the teabags into them and waited for the kettle to boil with his back turned to Nour. As he waited, he felt two hands slide from behind him and around him and he felt the weight of Nour’s head, and the softness of her hair settle against his back, and he felt the full strength of her embrace then. They held that embrace. Even longer after the water had boiled and he felt the seconds count before she stood back, and he continued to make the food. She asked for three sugars and no milk and when he finished making the tea for her, only then did he turn around and looked at her. For the first time he thought that he noticed the exact shade of pink of her lips, of the makeup around her eyes and as she blinked with her gaze not leaving his own it felt like the world moved at half speed and he thought then that she could destroy him if she wanted to.
She took the cup and sat at the kitchen table and waited for him to finish making the food.
The meal took him longer than usual and he plated it into two small bowls. He took the two bowls and walked over to his bedroom as Nour followed him, he set them down on the carpet close to his bed and turn on his sidelamp that he placed beside them. They ate together and for the first time in a long time, there was a long silence. There was no sound on the streets, no cars. There was no movement or any sounds of the kitchen appliances. For a second there was an implosion from within and the world stopped for just a second before resuming again and it was a silence like this that he savoured so much. The winter months made him feel like that, like the world stopped.
He set the bowls aside and took them in his hands and walked away from Nour leaving him in his bedroom as he walked into the kitchen. He turned the tap on and placed the two bowls inside the kitchen sink, put washing up liquid on the sponge and soaked the dishes and forks with the foam then he set them aside and started working on the pot, the chopping dish and the knife that he had used and when he finished, he set them aside, poured himself a glass of water and had it in one long drink.
He walked back to his bedroom, his footsteps feeling heavy on the wooden hallway floor, and he then opened the door and saw that Nour was still here, sitting on his bed on her phone. As she heard him walk in, she set the phone aside and placed it face down on his side table.
He sat on the bed close to her and looked at her again, her black hair against the cream wall.
“Are you still here?”
Then he leaned in and kissed her on the lips and placed his hands on her back and brought her closer to him.
In the evening of the next day Sasha walked through the open airfield of what used to be Tempelhof Airport which was only a twenty-minute walk from his apartment. A thin layer of snow covered the entirety of the space and as the light was slowly fading from the sky the horizon seemed to go on forever.
The only regret that he had was that he didn’t have a bike in the city and all he wanted to do was to feel the cold air on his face as he rushed across the expanse at full speed.
They just left it here like this in the middle of the city, just a big open space to go through. He wondered what it could be like in the summer.
© Timotej Bača