‘Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand…’ – Paul Celan, ‘Corona’
Yes, that’s me, standing at Bangalore Airport in India, with the captain and chief purser of Lufthansa flight 755. To our right is Dr. D. Sudhakar, the man who put me on an intravenous drip in the airport hospital clinic (because they have one, god bless them, at Bangalore airport). On my left, not entirely happy about being squeezed so hysterically by me, is the young Lufthansa staff member who had to try and lift me off the floor in the bathroom where I had, to all intents and purposes, kind of collapsed. Slowly, over the course of an hour or so.
More on this below, but for now let me say that after a week here in Berlin, I feel 80% back to full health. I am going to a doctor this week. Yes, I have health insurance. I am settling into my apartment and into this city. Berlin seems full of goodwill and texture and nice surprises. I kept the windows open last night. It is nowhere near as cold here yet as I feared. Today: two layers and a jacket, like a Wellington early summer day. That said, it’s taken me a while (a week) to trust I can leave the windows open and not die of exposure in the night. Discovered by some future epoch, perfectly preserved in a double-bed-sized block of ice, my shabby pyjamas and bed hair.
I probably sound like a total country mouse, but I am in love with the design of the windows here – at least the ones in my apartment.
They have what looks to be 17 layers of glazing, and a solid, graspable, turnable handle, like a real door (none of this sash, sliding up and down business). If you rotate this handle to 90 degrees, you can open the window like a door – hinged on one side, a full rectangle of glass and framing moving out from these hinges.
But here’s the thing: if you rotate the handle a full 180 degrees, then the entire set-up changes, and the thing hinges *at the bottom*, opening as a kind of ‘v’ into the room. This happens whether it’s a door or window we’re talking about. So you get air circulation without losing lots of space in the room, and you also get to marvel at how some people really do think of everything. Impressive. Practical. Stylish.
In the bath this morning, staring up at the small, top-most window in the bathroom, I kept thinking I was seeing fantails in the trees outside. They were autumn leaves twitching off their branches.
The wind is mild here so far. The coffee is mostly dreadful, with the odd fantastic exception. The dogs are unbelievably well-behaved. The U-bahn and the S-bahn and the trams are incredibly efficient. The soft European autumn light is flattering. The leaf-litter is sticky and sometimes there is dog shit in it. In fact, all of the nouns are very adjective. It will take me a while to stop saying ‘gesundheit’ instead of ‘entschuldigung’. Often when I open my mouth Māori language comes out. I keep saying ‘ae’ instead of ‘ja’, and ‘kia ora’ instead of ‘danke’. People say this is kind of common with a third language. I wonder how it goes for all those people I met in Bangalore who speak at least four.
To be honest, just as I felt in Bangalore, I’m feeling a little inadequate to describe this city, with its huge history and present day complexities. As I write, I’m sitting in a cafe at Rosa Luxemburg Platz. Rosa Luxemburg. You know. One of the heads of the Communist Party, who died in 1919, shot and thrown into the Landwehr Canal. I remember having a similar feeling when I moved to London as a youngster and all the underground stations were names I had heard of all my life: Piccadilly Circus, Westminster, Covent Garden. So far I find the U-bahn here a lot easier to use than London's, and a good deal less stressful. People don't, as a matter of course, run from one place to another here. And I mean run. I saw it many times in London, people running in their suits, often some distance, to make their next appointment. I wonder if they've installed running lanes on the footpaths there yet.
I’m sitting in a cafe called Kaschk, which serves ‘coffee and craft beer’ and ‘shuffleboard’, apparently. I am here with a group of other writers, folks I met through a website called ‘Meet Ups’. This group is called ‘Shut Up and Write’, and that’s exactly what they do: every Saturday at 10am, in this cafe, a bunch of writers turn up with their laptops and ignore each other for two periods of 40 minutes. In between times, I think we will talk to each other. I’m not sure. This is my first time. All I know for certain is that next time I will order a different ratio of milsch to kaffee.
I am going to come out – perhaps one of the more terrifying outcomings of many I’ve undertaken – as the history ignoramus that I am. I know an average amount about WWII, for example, but the details are hazy, and I feel ashamed of this now that I’m here. But instead of putting a dozen hyperlinks in here, or alternatively, feeling I can’t write anything in public until I’m an expert, I am just going to go ahead and blog and risk sounding ignorant. That way, I figure anyone reading this can maybe learn about the things I learn in real time, alongside me, one at a time.
On the train to this Meet Up I realised that there are still quite a few things I stop myself from doing out of fear of looking like a dick, which is basically shame in different shoes, right? So I sat on the train reading my ‘Top Ten Berlin Tips’ book, blatantly. I blatantly rubbed the half dozen points on my neck and the back of my head which have been causing me severe pain since I left New Zealand. I stood up way too early before my stop at Alexanderplatz because I had no idea that the announcement for that particular stop happens about three hours before the train actually comes to a halt. I ordered my writing group morning tea in German even though I probably said ‘Could I please have half a cup of washing detergent in a 1:2 ratio with methylated spirits, oh, and a chocolate hockey puck. Kia ora.’
Outside in the park, there is a man trying to train his French bulldog puppy to sit by pushing its hips down onto the ground. I am resisting the urge to run out and tell him about the future vet bills and offer him the remains of my chocolate hocky puck as treats for it.
Writers are such nerds. Everyone here, including me (curses on that 23kg limit), is dressed a little bit like a slightly stylish Jehovah’s Witness. And this lot are very young. I am the oldest here apart from one guy, sitting to my right, with matching long grey ponytail and bristly grey beard. His name is J----, and he is from Seattle – or more faithfully, ‘The Pacific Northwest’.
Berlin, in fact, seems like quite a young city (again, not backing this up with any statistics or anything, just impressions) – something which my mate Chris Price mentioned when I saw her here briefly, and since then I’ve noticed it myself. Maybe it’s just my neighbourhood.
I’ve done some small things I am proud of this week. For someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve done good. I have stocked up on groceries (and taken delivery of all the ones Chris was leaving here, thanks Chris!) I’ve found the 50m swimming pool and swum in it. I was geekily delighted to only have to turn around 20 times at the end of the lanes, not 40. I managed not to wear my street shoes into the changing rooms too far before remembering the tikanga here: street shoes are verboten anywhere people exercise or bathe. I have sussed out the underground system a bit, and used it several times, albeit just a few stops each time. I have attended a free screening of a film festival movie called ‘Mustang’ – by Turkish female film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Furthermore, when I found out it was subtitled in German and not English, I stayed anyway, and I actually got the story and everything. Great film. And humbling, as a writer, to realise so starkly how much of the storytelling in that medium is nothing to do with the text.
I’ve been to Boxhagener Platz markets – both Saturday and Sunday – and bought stuff, in German, from busy stall-holders. I met a friend at a night market in Prenzlauer Berg (so many prams oh my god more like Pramzlauer Berg did I say that out loud) and drank Glühwein and ate wood-fired pizza in the calm, cool night.
The apartment I’m in is divine. It is seriously like a dream come true. It has wooden floors, central heating, gauzy curtains and a view of the tops of trees out each side. It has reliably fast internet. It has a deep, long bath and the pillows on the bed are huge and square.
J---- has just told me about the best €130 he has spent so far: the Museum Pass. I had to spend a few seconds computing that it includes only 19 of Berlin’s 170 plus museums.
The scale of things here is going to take a while to get used to.
But when I say scale, I don’t mean scale in the same way as one might mean in Los Angeles for example – Berlin isn’t what you’d call a sprawing city. And not the same kind of scale as in New York, either. There is no high-rise anything going on here (at least, very little of it), and the city feels very humane and intimate. As a perfect combination of the scale and the humanity, as J---- was just saying, there is something like Tempelhof, which is an old closed down airport, now a public park, a huge expanse of flatness, where people have picnics and rollerblade on the enormous runways of yesteryear. I need to go and see this ‘crown jewel of open space.’ Also, ghosts of large aircraft: very appealing.
For those of you who don't know, I live with bouts of severe depression and anxiety, and fairly serious fibromyalgia and hypermobility, so lots of pain on all fronts, but also lots of tools and experience in handling them. Looking through my journal from this last week, most of what I’ve written is around establishing routines for myself – what I like to call my ‘Management Meetings’ – which will keep my mood and my overall health up where it needs to be to tackle the emotional work of the books I want to finish here. Namely, the memoir about my Dad and me, and a collection of poetry loosely themed around aloneness. Speaking of which, I watched a BBC clip the other day about moves in England to have loneliness recognised as a public health issue. Elderly people were interviewed talking about the empty house which is empty when you leave it and empty when you return, the one phone call they receive from a support worker each Saturday. ‘I make sure the receiver is in the cradle and I sit here waiting for that call. It’s very comforting.’
Which brings me to Bangalore.
I spent five amazing days there between Aotearoa and Berlin. I was visiting my bestie, Siân Torrington, who was finishing a visual arts residency at 1ShanthiRoad. Perhaps because I wasn’t in Delhi or Mumbai, or maybe because I’ve lived in several big cities in my time including Harare in Zimbabwe and London and Manchester, and in smaller places like Rarotonga with frequent visits to Fiji as a kid, I didn’t find it overwhelming or stressful or frustrating in the ways I was expecting. Sure, if I had to live there, I’m sure those passenger-helmet-free (don’t tell my mother) (yes I have health insurance) scooter jaunts would be less ‘woohooo!’ and more ‘aaargh I need to get to work get outta my way’.
But oh. My goodness. <gushy privileged white-looking tourist> The buildings, the temples, the lights, the hanging jackfruits in the stunning gardens. The fabric. The colour. The sounds. The way people ask after you (maybe this is because Bengaluru was actually a much smaller city until relatively recently – the advent of the IT industry etc). The very satisfying number of rhinestones per capita. THE COLOUR. THE SOUNDS. The cows wandering the streets – all of those clichés. The wealth and the poverty. Those stark things. Bengaluru is the rose capital of the world. There is such a thing as the rose capital of the world. The onion dosa. The small, tin cups that the bright green sauce comes in. The mini glasses that the sweet, milky coffee comes in – the way the guys serving it ladle and ladle the two steaming billies of milk so it won’t burn over the gas elements: one billy with sugary milk (far more action out of this billy) and one without (often I had to wait until this one was thoroughly heated through before I got my coffee, so even though I loved standing there in the milk steam, watching these guys do their thing while taking ticket after ticket from other eager punters, because I had nowhere to be in a hurry, eventually I just gave up and gave in to the sugar. Mmmmmm, coffee with sugar....) </gushy privileged white-looking tourist>
There were many extraordinary experiences even in such a short time in Bangalore, but right up there has got to be receiving an Ayurvedic massage and steam box treatment at one of India’s top Ayurvedic hopsitals. I will be poeming about this, but suffice to say at this point, my physical pain levels have never been so low after just one treatment of anything (THANK YOU CREEK WADDINGTON AND SIÂN TORRINGTON). After the massage, still breathing the amazing aroma of the oils on and in my skin, we caught an auto-rickshaw back to the house, just before a torrential downpour, the likes of which I had not witnessed since living in Harare in 1990. The rain was cold and drenching and it sheeted in through the open-sided auto, soaking me and Sian to the proverbial bone. Through it all, for the first time, I could smell the river: a mixture of rot and smoke.
Earlier that day, in the bright sunshine, I was in another auto-rickshaw, stopped at one of Bangalore's huge intersections. I looked to my right and saw, under the shelter of the huge motorway overpass beside us, a crow delicately eating the insides out of a decapitated pigeon – going in through the neck hole with its beak. Later, Siân and I debated whether it was indeed the crow who decapitated the pigeon, or whether the two situations were unrelated. Yes, we decided. Yes, it's probably possible to behead a pigeon with a crow.
So much of what I struggle with as a writer is the degree of magnification I give to things. As a poet I want to zero the hell in on everything, describe each nuance of each experience. And yet the book I’m working on here, Dear Mother Basillise, requires an entirely different approach – a wideshot, with only moments of well-chosen magnification thrown in. And of course all the density, economy and beauty of poetry. How much do I stand back, how much do I dive in?
So now to that photograph. Sorry to keep you waiting for 3,000 words.
What happened was. And in some ways I don’t want to go on about this because I’m really fine now and of course lots of people get sick when they travel etc. But it was a significant event in my travels. So here I go. Magnification activated. I hope I don't sound too whiney.
Me and Siân. We said our farewells to the lovely folks who had looked after us at and beyond Shanthi Road in Bangalore. On our way to the airport in a taxi, in serious traffic, a journey which could at best be described as stop-start, for two hours, I began to feel very nauseous. I thought it was car-sickness (I’ve been prone since I was a kid – seasickness, too. My Dad says I could get sick on a wet lawn). But then we arrived at the airport and it didn’t improve. This was highly inconvenient, as Siân was on crutches, having broken her foot a couple of weeks earlier, so the idea was I would be her luggage pusher and general helping hand during check-in etc. Instead I was slowly but surely becoming less and less functional, as what I can only describe as a nuclear version of any nausea I had ever experienced before began to fizz in my blood, my limbs, my head, everywhere but my stomach, it seemed. This wasn’t like some normal kind of food poisoning situation. And it wasn’t a normal car-sickness either. Weird. I was shaking a lot.
There was a difficult moment when Siân had to make the decision to leave me there in the concourse and go and get her own flight back to New Zealand via Singapore. I was pretty freaked out to be left, to be honest, because I didn’t think I would be able to stand up or walk for much longer, but I could still talk, and I didn’t see how keeping my broken-footed friend from her long-awaited trip home to her betrothed, who she had been missing so badly, and to a full recovery post-accident and post-exhibition, would help either of us at all. I told her to go. She was wheeled away and I burst into tears. She messaged me frantically from her gate with contact numbers of people I could call and rely on, friends of hers in Bangalore, until the wireless ran out, or she boarded, or I could no longer look at the screen of my phone without crippling waves of sick feelings, I’m not sure which came first. It was a hard separation for lots of reasons, but I was very happy she was on her way home. (The two images below are from her Bengalore exhibition 'weaving in, weaving out').
I had several hours before I needed to check in, so I decided to try and sleep for a bit. Perhaps it was all just jetlag and exhaustion. It had been a very full few days, and I hadn’t been sleeping past 4.30am since I arrived. So I dozed in a hard plastic airport chair, the top of it cutting into the back of my neck. I dreamed I was on a horse, then I dreamed I was picking roses. I dribbled freely in front of the hundreds of other in-transit passengers. Each time I woke, I woke with a lurch of adrenaline, scared I’d missed my flight, and as soon as I was conscious, the nausea flooded back with a vengeance, pinning me in my seat.
After an hour or so of this, I decided the time had come to find out exactly what sort of a shape I was in by trying to check in. I stood up. I began to sweat. My shaking got worse. I made it to the gate. My palms were cold and wet. I was sure I was grey and swaying. I waited for three to four years for the staff to check my passport. I almost had my boarding pass in my hands. But instead of taking it and walking calmly to the gate, I babbled something unintelligible and ran for the bathrooms, which thankfully were close by.
Without going into too much gruesome detail, I didn’t really do much in there except continue to be slammed by the ever-escalating nausea and shaking, until I couldn’t stand up, and couldn’t really talk, either. At this point (after watching me lie on the floor of a the toilet stall for a couple of hours) the airport staff decided perhaps it would be good to stop asking me whether I thought I was going to be able to take my flight today, because they needed to know for their boarding records, or simply to stop telling me that there was no way I was going to be able to take my flight today, and no they couldn’t help me find somewhere to stay, and no they couldn’t help me get to a money machine, or a doctor, or anywhere, and just go and get me a fucking wheelchair. Whoops I swore.
Two men had to come into the women’s toilets to lift me into the wheelchair. I suspected in India this was perhaps an even bigger deal than it would be in New Zealand, and I was very grateful, though I still don’t know who they were. I retched loudly (I want to write ‘wretch’) into a plastic bag while they wheeled me to the clinic on the second floor, bringing up nothing but providing at least some entertainment for bored early-morning air passengers.
As soon as we arrived at the clinic, I realised I was in a safe place, the best place. Turns out it was actually a branch of one of India’s best and most famous hospitals. Yay! The staff immediately put me on a drip, through which I appreciatively absorbed several units of anti-nausea medication, fluids and antibiotics (in case this was, indeed, food poisoning). My shaking, which was so severe when I first lay down I could hardly stay on the bed, subsided completely within about 20 minutes. I began to be able to say things other than ‘thank you so much thank you so much thank you so much I’m so grateful thank you so much’. My nurse, who’s name was Manju, and the photographer who took that pic, told me that looking at my face as I recovered was like ‘watching the sun rise’. I almost cried. He also said, when I told him my age, that I didn’t look anything like 47. Shame he lives in Bangalore.
Within a couple of hours I was feeling what can only be described as a motherfucking shitload of an order of magnitude better than I had in that toilet stall. I was speaking fine, my blood pressure and heart-rate and temperature were completely normal, I was drinking juice, I was drinking water, I was cracking hilarious jokes. I was standing up!
Many of you reading this will know that my last six months in New Zealand hadn’t exactly been hurdle-free themselves. Since I found out I had won the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency 2016 (THANK YOU CREATIVE NEW ZEALAND), which was a huge and wonderful surprise, it seemed my circumstances and NZ life weren’t going to let me go so easily. There was finding someone to look after my dog, and this wasn’t easy, because he is a young, energetic and often irritatingly wiley border collie (THANK YOU TINA MAKERETI AND GRETCHEN BAKER).
There was a fairly substantially devastating break-up that came out of nowhere with a guy who I really thought was The One, with whom I had a brief but intensely enjoyable five months wherein we laughed a lot, made what I thought was a deep connection, had great sex, and who had talked of marriage and home-buying and him coming to visit me with his son for six weeks over Christmas and who had introduced me to his family and friends and and and...I think the term ‘one-eighty’ is apt here. And to this day, unexplained. Not the first of this kind of sudden-cut-off-from-loved-ones thing I’ve experienced, but the first in a romantic context, and hopefully the last. Broke my stupid heart.
Pssshh. Whatevs, your loss dude.
There was a very full teaching and contract work schedule, three classes and two writing commissions, mahi that freelancers will understand I said yes to knowing I would be busy but hey, nothing I hadn’t done before, and I needed to put some acorns aside for what is always a very quiet Christmas/summer period. There were a few other things, and then, just before I left, my 81-year-old mother was rushed/flown to hospital in Wellington from Nelson for emergency surgery on an aneurism. This surgery was then cancelled twice (maybe not such an emergency?) and ended up happening on the Monday before I left on the following Saturday. So that last week of my time in Wellington, which anyone who’s left the country for a relatively long time knows was always bound to be a bit busy, now included many hours spent in the hospital with my mother. She was a great patient and is now almost completely recovered. Which is fantastic! But, you know. She left hospital on Friday afternoon and I left New Zealand Saturday morning. It was, um. Intense.
So now, here I was, shakey but ok, having recovered enough to get off the bed and stand up, negotiating this latest, fairly dramatic barrier to actually getting to Germany. The final hurdle was: would Lufthansa let me fly?
Both me and Dr Sudhakar felt I was well enough. He wrote a report to this effect. The idea was I would show this report to the counter-staff and then the decision would be up to them. To say I was relieved at not having to contemplate changing my travel arrangements, given my general state and the fact that I didn’t have a phone with a functioning Indian simcard or any rupees on me or any decent way of putting proper thoughts together, and it was 3am, would probably be, as they say, an understatement.
But Lufthansa had other ideas. Just as Dr Sudhakar finished writing the report saying he recommended I be approved to take my flight, a Lufthansa staff member came into the clinic and said quietly, ‘Please doctor, the captain for the flight would like to meet the passenger.’
And it was true. Outside the door was the flight’s captain, its chief purser, and several other cabin crew members, who were calling by to clap eyes on me and make certain I was fit to fly. I think it’s one of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced, walking off an IV drip and out the clinic door to greet a group of improbably tall white people wearing sharp, dark-blue uniforms and huge smiles, addressing me with concerned questions, in German-accented English, about my well-being.
‘You have only just finished having an infusion, yes?’ the Captain asked. ‘Are you sure you are ready for a flight of this length? It’s eight hours, you know.’ He had stripes on his sleeve and everything.
Yes, yes, I said, I’ve never felt better. I praised the clinic staff, I told them Dr Sudhakar and Manju were amazing, true healers, and I grabbed the tiny woman from Lufthansa who had tried to lift me off the floor in the bathroom and practically flung her at them (what was I doing??) I made jokes and laughed at them myself. I talked of how incredible it was that I had improved so much in such a short time, and hey, how about those intravenous drugs ay? From where we were standing, chatting, I could almost see the security gate through which I was determined to pass on my way to my flight. It practically twinkled. I smiled a lot. I inflected my voice more than a More FM breakfast host. I swung my 9kg hand-luggage around like it was made of polystyrene.
I want to be clear, here, that there is no way Dr Sudhakar would have signed me off if there was any doubt in his mind about my condition and/or prospects. I was just being a little more, erm, wholehearted and energetic in this interaction than I perhaps would have been if the journey itself wasn't at stake.
And it worked. The captain smiled and said he was happy to welcome me on board. The chief purser said she recommended I drink a lot more water than I usually did, and she would make sure someone kept an eye on me. They made sure I was upgraded to a seat with lots of legroom and allowed me to board with the disabled passengers, first class passengers, and passengers with young families. They were so good to me I was gushy and wet-eyed with them all through the entire flight.
THANK YOU LUFTHANSA.
I got to Frankfurt. I wobbled off the plane very slowly. I got my luggage and walked it six hundred kilometres to the Air Berlin gate. I sat down a lot. I breathed deeply. I managed to convince the Air Berlin dude to let me through with 25kg of luggage and no extra charges. THANK YOU AIR BERLIN. I made it onto the next plane. I made it to Berlin. And it is autumn, and beautiful, and benign, and I feel very fortunate to be here. I have worked out a little schedule for myself that will hopefully help me finish both Dear Mother Basillise and my new poetry collection while I’m here. I am across the road from several very Berlin shops and upstairs from an excellent vegan Vietnamese restaurant. I have friends here, and the strangers are (so far) very kind. In a couple of weeks I start eight weeks of German lessons sponsored by the Goethe Institute (THANK YOU GOETHE INSTITUTE). And for Christmas, my lovely friends Leonardo and Francesca are flying to Berlin to get me, and then we will all spend Christmas with their families in Tuscany. THANK YOU LEO AND FRA. And I have, ahead of me, a year in which all I need to do is concentrate on writing and reading.
By now, I have written nearly five thousand blimmin words about all this, which seems to me an entirely unreasonable demand on you, Dear Reader. If you’ve made it this far, bloody good on you. I may not write this much every week, or every blog. I may not write this blog very regularly. But here you go – the first one.
I’ll finish with this incredible poem from one of my favourite German poets, Paul Celan. Thank you to whoever left this anthology here in the apartment, and to its amazing editor, Michael Hofmann.
Liebe Grueße me te aroha nui.
by Paul Celan (translated by Michael Hamburger)
Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.
In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.
My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,
we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.
We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.
It is time.