#4: On the Mojitos of Marco Krinowski

 

I’ve officially reached the halfway point of my research stay in Frankfurt (Oder). On one hand, I can’t believe it’s half over, and on the other I’m having a difficult time processing the fact that it’s only been two weeks. That my entire German experience is able to squeeze itself into the shape of fourteen days is ludicrous. Surely I’ve got at least a month’s worth of memories.

I took the train back to Berlin yesterday for a four-day museum research and general study trip, as well as a change of scenery. And in a few days I will almost definitely be posting a love letter to Berlin.

But today, I’m going to talk about cinnamon vodka. This wonderful tale spans two days and begins, as many good stories do, with beer and football.

(For readers of this blog who have a professional/academic relationship with me – for the record, over these days I also sent a mountain of emails, read over 150 pages about GDR feminism, visited the first GDR planned city Eisenhüttenstadt (!), and attended two public lectures. I am working! I am researching! Please continue to think of me as a non-hooligan!)

Okay, where was I? Oh, yes. Hooligans.

So last Thursday was the semi-final between Germany and France, as part of the European Football Soccer Contest Thingy that I don’t really know or care that much about. Football for me means Australian Rules Football, and even my passion for that has faded (much like the way the light fades from my boyfriend’s eyes at the very mention of sports).

The VIP fellows were invited to the beach under the Frankfurt-Słubice bridge, where a movie screen has routinely shown matches, and where German and Polish fans gather to shout at players/umpires/each other/full cups/empty cups/the whole of human existence. It was a great time. We were introduced to several staff members from the International Office, and ended up drowning our sorrows over the German defeat at the Latino bar down the street.

I woke up a little foggy the next morning and remembered, after enough of my brain had been resuscitated, that we’d all made plans to meet up for cocktails before the city carnival later on. My head and stomach pinned back their collective ears and whimpered.

Some context: I’m not one for benders. I think I had a bender once. I’m not sure. I’ve banned myself from thinking about it.

Alas – from the depths of my addled mind, the voice of Jess From Two Weeks Ago floated out. You promised yourself you’d do everything, the crazy lady said. No regrets. I tend in these situations (due to some aforementioned lovely social anxiety) to retreat into myself – fill my social quota, and get out of there, only to later wish I’d stayed. When I was accepted into this program, I decided that this needed to change.

And so, after a long nap, I surprised myself by doing the thing!

At seven thirty, a couple of us wandered over to the apartment of Marco, staff member at the Viadrina Welcome Centre, maker of cocktails, and singer of Irish folk songs, as we were about to find out. Our arrival was the anacrusis to a thunderstorm, which as everyone knows is the natural breeding ground for more cocktails. By the time the sky-chaos had abated, there was a pretty excellent buzz going on in my head.

At around nine-thirty, we made it to the carnival – a people-saturated, higgledy-piggledy arrangement of pop-up bars, thrill rides, and the odd musical stage. With beers in hand, we wandered into a reggae scene, and better yet, a reggae band that sang mostly in English. There we listened to the woeful tale of the drummer, who was stuck on a train somewhere near Berlin, and at midnight the sky turned once again to chaos, this time with fireworks.

Normally my night would have ended there – but oh no. This was no night for sleeping, nor was there space in my Get Memories Quick scheme for the Jess of Old. In a basement close by, where a dance club was thriving, I introduced myself to cinnamon vodka shots (see! We got there!)

And to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember all that much of the next few hours. But even now, a couple of days later, I think back on that night as one of the best I’ve had in a long time. And all I can think is: this. This is what happens when social anxiety finally, at least temporarily, takes a hike.

This is the good shit. 

 

 

#3: On Walking to Poland for a Haircut

 

According to my personal blog update schedule, this post is almost two days late. Monday night was going to be a smooth ride, a leisurely balance of writing and reading under the dizzying protein high of eggs on toast (because I don’t believe in time anymore, and breakfast equals dinner).

Needless to say – and if you’re Facebook friends with me, you’ll already know this – my night took a different turn.

The short answer: I am an idiot.

The long answer: I am an idiot who thought it would be a good idea to download the latest version of Photoshop onto my senile, panic-at-multiple-tabs, who-needs-a-working-email-when-there’s-the-power-of-friendship laptop. And under the stress of an Adobe application– you could say it paled in fright. You could also say it simply shat itself and faked a coma for two of the more panicked hours of my life.

I spent a very long time walking around Frankfurt, trying to calm down. On the steps of the one and only café that doesn’t disable its Wi-Fi at night (shout-out to Cafe Dreißig), I punched out several capitalised Facebook messages to people who were asleep in Adelaide. I made some back-up plans. And of course it rained on me on the way back, because my life is a Richard Curtis film.

When I got home, I discovered that my laptop is in fact Jesus Christ, and likes being the Son of God so much that it’s died and risen from the dead twice since. It has probably caused my first grey hair.

And that is why the rollicking anecdote I envisioned for this post has deteriorated to a rage against technology, and against myself.

(Deep breath.)

Now I shall balance it out, by talking about the day I walked to Poland and back!

I’m fine.

(Glares at laptop.)

Right.

Time for some war talk.

So: Frankfurt (Oder) and the Polish town Słubice are separated by a bridge over the Oder river. These towns have a fascinating history; they were one and the same until 1945, when Russia’s Red Army burned the majority of it down on their march to Berlin. Post-war, the German-Polish border was reduced to a straight crop along the Oder, and Słubice was abandoned to the Poles.

These days, Frankfurt and Słubice have let bygones be bygones. Whilst Słubice is still a Polish town, border patrol on the bridge is virtually non-existent, which means that anyone can (and genuinely will) amble overseas, do some shopping, and then amble back home twenty minutes later without having to flash a passport at anyone. Apparently most people in Frankfurt cross the bridge to get their hair cut – the wage laws are quite different, and consequently a Polish hairdresser can save you 10 or 15 euros.

I had cultivated this perfect, fool-proof idea, whereby I was going to walk to Poland and get a haircut. My original plan was to go on Saturday – but terrible weather kept me inside, staring at my rain-soaked window pane, thinking about all the coffee that was elsewhere. So Sunday it was.

But here’s the catch, the tremor in the perfectly smooth plan. I’ve been listening to German conversations, flung up and torn down around me for over a week now. I still don’t understand a lot of it, but the cadences are familiar, the rhythm is sewn into my head. German shares a lot of similar word fragments with English; I found out today, for example, that the word for Writing Centre is Schreibzentrum – Scribe Centrum.

Makes sense, right? Old English and Old German were once closely related before that whole cultural obsession with French words, and a lot of that trace remains.

But Polish?

Polish is an utter nightmare of incoherence. It’s a Slavic language – a child raised in a completely different house to both English and German, except that at one point it jumped the fence and stole a dictionary’s worth of z’s and y’s from someone’s backpack.

Forget about getting a haircut. I had a tricky enough time getting something vegetarian for lunch.

Nonetheless, I had a really great day. I met the littlest dog in the world, which has made my month. Acting on a plucky but terrible sense of direction, I ended up wandering around the countryside for an hour longer than intended – but the photographs I managed to take were beautiful, and it was a warm day –and Słubice in the sun is a wash of Instagram pastels, it is children playing in the streets, bird houses, vintage cigarette stores, second-floor balconies, and peacefulness.

It is a lovely little town. But as I crossed the bridge back to Frankfurt and heard someone say Danke, I could feel the weight leave my shoulders. Back to rhythm. Back to comfort.

It’s strange how a language I still barely understand has becoming reassuring. Strange, but nice.

 

#2: On Explaining the Ocean to Fish

 

The moment’s come – I have had to (reluctantly) switch my tourist hat for my academic hat. Sadly, the scholarship gods are not paying me to wander about tilting my phone camera at walls, cultivating masterpieces for the Instagram account I refuse to sign up for. As fun and pretentious as that is.

No, I’m here to work. To research German feminism, and the political history of the GDR, so that I can present it with respect and precision in my thesis novel. It was only after I arrived here that it occurred to me how vague that intention was; I’d jotted down a list of relevant museums, and I’d made plans to present my research in my supervisor’s class, but the other three and a half weeks ahead of me were, and still mostly are, white calendar spaces.

My ignorant vision of the European experience was of long days, city crawls and borderline-inappropriate amounts of people-watching. What a surprise – I have days more or less the same length as before, and those days still have hours, and those hours still have minutes. And I can’t fill those minutes with vague backpacker romanticism. I have to make to-do lists.

I paid almost two and a half thousand dollars to get here – time is fucking precious, you understand.

I had lunch with my supervisor on Wednesday, who is aesthetically the most beautiful person I have ever seen. I was nervous. I’d spent the entire previous afternoon trying to remind myself what I’d written in my thesis proposal, rehearsing a few impressive lines, desperate to create a good first impression. But once I’d met her, that all seemed silly. We sat outside the cafeteria, under a sky with a lump in its throat, and we talked about time travel until the clouds burst. Her background is in natural philosophy so she isn’t an enormous expert on my topic, but she knows a handful of relevant people, and I have their email addresses.

If only my email would work on my laptop, and I could stop rushing to McDonalds every morning for a half-hour Wi-Fi emailathon on my phone. Then I could introduce some class to the situation. But I guess we can’t have everything.

Yesterday I also presented my thesis in my supervisor’s class – a document I’d sent over beforehand, and an introductory presentation I was yet to write. I thought I’d be okay with a casual five minutes. She asked for fifteen. I spent most of the day typing and retyping, deleting, pouring out all the words I knew.

And then, halfway through a sentence, I had a Crisis.

I was writing about the GDR like I was about to present to a class at Flinders.

But I wasn’t presenting to Australians this time.

I was presenting to Germans. About Germany.

How was I supposed to lead a discussion in a room where I had the least standing of anyone? It’s like giving a lecture to fish about how the ocean works. Yes, hello, I’m here from a country not even attached to your continent, to talk to you about what life was like for your parents.                  

It’s something I think I will always struggle with, as I imagine most writers do when writing about other countries – the fear of cultural appropriation, of pretending to know about a culture and a history that isn’t yours. Cultural imposter syndrome, you could call it. I caught a pretty bad case of it while writing about China last year. And on a significantly smaller level, I got it at the beginning of my PhD. So many intelligent, self-assured people! Everywhere! I don’t belong here!

Okay, so uni-induced imposter syndrome isn’t the same thing at all. Besides, Stephen Fry talks about feeling it in his first days at Cambridge, and we all know Stephen Fry deserved to be at Cambridge, so the whole thing is debunked anyway.

But cultural appropriation is a serious issue. It’s in the media constantly, in discussions about using words like “on fleek” and “bae” as a white person, and how you should never, ever dress as a geisha or a Native American for Halloween. Do not.

Some years ago, the Australian writer Anna Funder wrote a creative nonfiction book called Stasiland, in which she conducts interviews with Germans who lived through the GDR. This is the book that triggered my fascination with East Germany in the first place. It’s Germany through the lens of an Australian. Funder is constantly aware of her imposter syndrome, and conducts these interviews with immense respect, and a desire to learn.

So yes, it’s a precarious boat I am in. But I’m in this boat with Anna Funder. And Anna Funder is my hero. So I’m okay.

And here’s the thing –it was okay. It was more than okay. Not one person questioned my right to be investigating their culture. Quite the opposite – at the end of the class, a number of students offered to put me in touch with family members who had lived through the GDR regime. There is now the possibility of conducting interviews – first-hand accounts of what it was like under Mielke, Honecker, the Stasi, and the Wall. Of what it was like as a woman, legally equal to men but socially much the same as before.

This is Funder-level research.

This is so, so much more than okay.