All Invisible From Where We Stand

Spandau, the most outlying and unexciting borough of Berlin, has earned some measure of fame for two things: providing Rudolf Hess with life-long free board and lodging, and for making it as complicated as possible for those who seek shelter in Germany. Marco started to work at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees twelve years ago, after his second child was born and his wife had her first attack of multiple sclerosis. This afternoon, after finishing his paperwork, he goes to the window and looks down on the courtyard. He stands there while his colleagues are marching to their cars and the janitor is clearing the trash bins. He’s still there when the court is deserted and the pigeons take over. At five fifteen he goes back to the desk and reaches for his briefcase. Slowly climbing down the stairs he hears somebody else’s steps above him.

“Marco! You’re going to the bus?”

He turns around. “I need to copy something first.”

Iris smiles. “Me too.”

They have to wait until the secretary is done. Marco opens the briefcase and takes out his iPad. He browses through his calendar, and then he puts the iPad back again. Iris tilts her head. “I’m thinking of buying one of those, too.”

“It’s practical,” Marco says.

“I’m still not sure,” Iris says. “Always online. Sounds a bit creepy.”

He shrugs. “Always and everywhere.”

“Well,” she says, “You can still turn it off, can’t you?”

The secretary grabs her papers and winks. “You guys have a lovely weekend,” she says, pushing for the door.

“You, too.” Iris turns to Marco. “You can go first.”

He steps back. “No, go ahead.”

She holds up a book of case law. “I haven’t found the right precedent yet.”

“All right.” He opens his briefcase. “I won’t be long.”

Iris touches his sleeve. “Take your time.”

He clears his throat and takes out a single sheet. “Thank you.” He closes the lid, presses the button, waits for the light to pass and removes the sheet again. When he catches the copies, they are still warm. He stuffs them into his briefcase and says, “Your turn.” He reaches for the door handle. “I better be going now.”

“Give me a minute. We can take the bus together.” Iris puts her book onto the machine. “Just two pages, okay?” She presses the start button and frowns. “Marco?” She points at a sticker attached to the wall: Always make sure that the copy machine is filled with paper after usage.

“Sorry.” Marco opens a new pack and pulls out the drawer.

“Don’t do that,” Iris says. “You don’t want to have a paper jam.” She takes half of the pile, places it in the drawer and carefully closes it. “This should be fine.” She presses the start button again and then takes out the book and makes another copy.

Marco looks at the clock above the door.

“I’ll be done in a sec,” she says.

She reaches for her copies and browses through them. “That’s not mine,” she says, handing him the first one.

“Right.” He quickly rolls up the sheet. “My son’s celebrating his birthday.”

“It’s a nice drawing.”

He smiles. “I’ll tell him.”

They walk past the pigeons. One flies by next to his head, brushing his shoulder.

“That was close.” Iris removes a feather from his coat and says, “When I was a kid, a pigeon got caught in the front wheel of my bike. There was blood everywhere.” She starts to laugh. “It took me two shrinks to realize that it isn’t my fault if someone stupid comes in my way.”

“My wife loved them,” Marco says. “She used to feed them with bread crumbs.”

At the bus station Iris opens a pack of cigarettes. “How are things at home?”

“Since when are you smoking?”

She smiles. “I quit after Leon was born. Now that he is moving out, I thought I might start again.”

Marco looks at the sign. The next bus is leaving in five minutes. “I could use one of those too.”

She passes him the packet. He pulls out a cigarette and bends toward the lighter that she is holding up to him. “Thank you,” he says.

She nods. “How are the kids?”

He takes a drag and inhales deeply. “All right.”

Iris looks at him, frowning. “I’m so sorry.” She slowly blows out the smoke. “I really am.”

He reaches into the briefcase for his cell phone. He looks at the display, and then he says, “There’s the bus.”

“If you need someone to talk…” She drops her cigarette, puts it out with her foot, picks it up and throws it into the trash bin. “You can call me anytime.”

“Thank you.”

“I’d love to help,” she says, and then she bites on her lower lip.

“Thank you.”

“I’m a single mom, remember?” She touches her chin. “Gosh, what am I saying?” She shrugs. “What I mean is I can look after your kids. I know how it is. You have to organize and everything. Anyway, I’d love to do that. If you need a rest, you know?”

“Thanks,” he says.

Iris enters the bus. Holding up her ticket, she smiles at the driver. Then, she turns around and says, “You’re coming?”

He tosses his cigarette on the street, reaches into his back pocket and shows his ticket. The driver nods and pushes a button. The door lets out a sigh, closing them all in.

Iris falls onto a free bench. “I’m so happy for Makela,” she says as he sinks down next to her.

“Who?”

She opens her eyes wide. “The Lebanese girl you signed the paper for today.”

“That one.”

“She’s going to do her A-levels next year.”

He presses his briefcase to his upper body.

“Girls like her make me feel that my work makes sense.” She smiles. “At least you’re not one of the bastards. You haven’t forgotten that they are real people.”

Marco looks at the kid standing next to him. His gaze wanders from his head to the sneakers, to the loose laces blackened from dirt and rain.

“The first week I was so close to quitting.” Iris sighs. “But then I thought that it would be worth it if I could at least save some of them.” She winks at him and says, “Like the Mbuvis. Remember them? The father has finally got a work permit. They got their own place now.” She rummages in her bag and produces a pack of chewing gum. “Want one?”

He nods and tries to draw out a stick.

“Wait,” she says. “Let me do it.” She passes him a stick. “I always hated clerks with bad breath. I hated all clerks.” She starts to laugh and puts her hand on his thigh. “You’re doing a great job, Marco.” She smiles and says, “You save a lot of families.”

He turns to the window, holding his breath.

Iris chuckles. “I’m sorry.”

He looks at the bus which is just passing them. He looks at the faces looking in his direction. “I sign the orders, that’s all.”

Iris sighs. “It must be hard for you.”

He stands up. “You’re staying in here?”

“No,” she says.

The subway is crammed full of people at this time of the day. Since they have started construction work on the new line to the Reichstag, trains are delayed constantly. Plus, the beginning of winter has added a large number of people who’d rather leave their bicycles at home. A group of Spanish tourists with maps in their hands crowds around them, making every attempt of conversation redundant. Iris and Marco just stand next to each other in silence. Then, the Spanish tourists leave and other people leave, too, and Iris says, “Shall we take a seat?”

He sinks down next to her. She opens her bag and takes out a folder. “There is this guy from Cameroon I’ll have to interview on Monday.”

Marco presses his briefcase to his chest.

“His first application was turned down. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s gay.” She opens the folder. A sticker saying Stop Deportation Now is attached inside. “He is a poet.” She holds up a booklet. “This is his original language, Duala. The title means, ‘My father’. He was killed in some war. Threw himself on a group of children to protect them from shelling.”

Marco fumbles with the handle of his briefcase.

“This guy is the only one from his family to survive,” she says. “If we sent him back they will kill him on the spot.”

Marco sighs.

“Sorry,” Iris says. “Work’s over for today, I know.”

Next to them four teenage boys are chatting loudly in a mix of German and Turkish. Iris smiles. “I’m learning Arabic now. It’s not easy. With the different letters and all.” She writes something on a piece of paper. “This is my name in Arabic. Pretty, isn’t it?” She throws a glance at the boys and says, “Nobody ever asks us if we speak their language, right?”

He looks at her. Then, he opens his briefcase and takes out a bunch of papers. “See these?”

She frowns. “What’s that?”

He flips through the pages and says, “Ngala, Tokewa, Koye.” He draws a pen out of his shirt pocket. “Watch this.” He scribbles on the bottom of a page. “Saved.” He also signs the other papers and then passes them to her. “Feel better now?”

She drops her gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“Can you please stop?” He rubs his left temple, saying, “Can you please stop saying that?”

Her eyes are fixed on the ads offering advice, jobs, and master programs at private colleges. “I began to study law because I wanted to do something. They were deporting all these people back to their countries where there would be starving or tortured or killed as soon as they left the plane.” She carefully puts the papers into her folder. “It wasn’t easy being a single mum.” She leans back and says, “I wanted to help.”

He closes his briefcase and places it on the floor. “It’s a job,” he says. “I’m just a desk criminal.”

“I thought you cared for these people.”

“Of course you did.”

The subway comes to a halt. He looks out of the window. The sign says Halemweg.

“I understand.” She smiles. “You’ve got other things on your mind now.”

He snorts. “Like what?”

“Marco,” she says. “I know it’s hard.”

He checks his cell again. “Do you?”

“My mother died two years ago.” She closes her eyes for a moment, and then she opens them again, saying, “I often ask myself why there are still so many people laughing and chatting and having fun as if everything would last forever.” She clears her throat. “There is this group I’m going to once a month. They all lost a loved one. It’s good to share.” She smiles at him and says, “Next time is on Wednesday. Perhaps you’d like to come, too.”

Marco leans back. “Jesus.”

She bites on her lower lip, and then she says, “I just want to help.”

He stands up. The doors are closing. He sits down again. “Sorry. I didn’t want to be rude.”

Iris fumbles with the sleeve of her coat. “I know.”

The train is rattling along the tunnel. He looks up and says, “Your son’s moving out?”

She nods. “He’s going to live in Hamburg.” She straightens her skirt. “He wants to study law. I told him not to, but you know how it is.”

Marco yawns. “Back to freedom.”

The lights start to flicker. The train slows down for a while, and then it speeds up again. Iris looks to her left where one of the teenage boys is scribbling a tag onto the window. “It’s not easy,” she says. “Letting go, I mean.”

The boys jump up and push each other along the aisle. When the subway comes to a halt, they bang against the door until it opens. They are replaced by a man reading a book, a woman pushing a buggy and three girls dressed up for a party.

“Well,” Marco says as the doors are closing again. “Any plans for the weekend?”

Iris shrugs. “Nothing special.” She fumbles with the collar of her blouse. “I thought of going to the theatre. My son’s worrying about me being by myself too much.”

Opposite to them a boy and a girl are holding hands, watching videos on a tablet, sharing in-ear headphones. Iris smiles and says, “I told him that I don’t mind, but you know how it is. Kids want their parents to be happy.”

The speakers announce the next stop. “Right.” Marco stands up and extends his hand. “Have a nice weekend.”

“You, too,” Iris says. Then, the lights go off and the subway comes to a halt in the middle of the tunnel. “Oh,” she says, holding on to his hand.

Marco steps back to get free. The emergency light goes on. He sits down again and says, “I hate it.”

Iris leans back. “Maybe we’re just waiting for another train to leave the next station.”

“I just read that more than half of the vehicles need maintenance,” Marco says. “Apparently, they ran out of money.” He shakes his head. “Like everyone in this fucking city. Poor but sexy.”

Iris touches her temple with her right hand and put her left on Marco’s leg again. “Last night, I had this dream.” She takes away her hand, and then she says, “I dreamed that I was riding a bus. I sat down behind the driver and took out my book. When I looked up again, I realized that there hadn’t been any stop for more than hundred pages. ‘I need to get off,’ I said to the bus driver. He looked at me through the rear view mirror as if I wanted something no one had ever wanted before. ‘You have to push the button,’ he said which I did then and the bus stopped. I hurried down the aisle and got off in the middle of a desert, and then I stood there, watching the bus slowly disappearing, and then I woke up.”

“Well,” Marco says.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“I wish we were in a bus now,” he says. “We could get out and share a taxi.”

She smiles. “You don’t believe in dreams, do you?”

Marco reaches for his cell phone. Looking at Iris he says, “Listen, honey, can you call the pizza service?” He rubs his front and listens and then he goes on, “Nothing to worry about. Talk to you later.”

The girl opposite to them smirks. “Fuck them.”

“Relax,” her boyfriend says.

Iris turns to Marco. “Are they all right?”

“Who? The kids?” He puts his cell into the inner pocket of his jacket. “Of course.”

“How old are they now?”

“Nine and fourteen.” He looks at her, and then he says, “I believe in coincidences. I believe that life is just a never ending collision of stupid coincidences.” He loosens his tie and opens the first buttons of his shirt. “If you hadn’t come down the stairs, I wouldn’t have had to wait for you at the copy machine and I would have caught the earlier bus. Or, I would have made some more copies and I would have taken the next bus. Anyway,” he says raising his eyebrow, “the coincidence that made you go down the stairs the very moment I came out of my room led to a lot of other coincidences which led to the fact that my poor kids will be sitting in front of the TV munching a hot pizza in about twenty minutes.” He smiles. “They’ll be happy. I am such a bad cook.”

“Me too,” Iris says.

The man standing next to them opens his backpack and takes out a beer can.

“Lucky bastard,” Marco says.

A woman says to her teenage son, “Somebody jumped on the tracks?”

Her son shakes his head. “That’s called personal damage.” He turns around to her and says, “They wouldn’t do it in the middle of a tunnel. Too much hassle.”

His mother says, “How do you know?”

He raises his left shoulder. “I just.”

Marco clears his throat. “What was it like to be in the desert?”

“It wasn’t as exotic as I thought a desert would be. It wasn’t even hot.”

“What do you mean by exotic?”

She shrugs.

“A poor but happy place?”

“Guess so.”

Marco takes out his cell and looks at the display, and then he puts it back again. “I’d die for a smoke.”

Iris sighs. “Hopefully we’ll be moving soon.”

“Give me a cigarette.”

“You can’t smoke in here!”

He points at her bag. “I know where they are.” He gets up and opens the window. “Come on, I blow the smoke outside.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Stop me.” He gently takes the bag out of her hands and reaches for the pack of cigarettes. Then, he returns the bag and says, “I also know where you keep your lighter.”

Iris reaches into her breast pocket. “You really shouldn’t.”

He holds the cigarette out of the window and blows out the smoke. “Relax,” he says. “I take full responsibility. I’ll pay the fine.” He winks and says, “Have one too. I’ll pay yours as well.”

“Hey,” a man wearing a baseball cap shouts, “it’s non-smoking in here.”

Marco doesn’t even look. He takes a drag and blows the smoke into the cold darkness, and then he takes another drag.

The owner of the buggy touches Iris’s shoulder. “Can you please tell your husband to stop smoking? My son’s got asthma.”

“He’s not my husband.” Iris looks around, at the people staring curiously at her, and then whispers, “His wife died. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“The fuck I do,” Marco says.

The man with the beer can takes out a pack of cigarettes as well and joins Marco. He holds up his can. “Want some?”

“Yeah,” Marco says. He takes a sip and smiles, and then he takes another sip and passes the can back. The two men finish smoking and drinking in silence. The mother brings her kids to the other end of the wagon, and the rest stop watching when both men return to their seats.

Iris takes a deep breath, and then she says, “I understand that you’ve had a lot of stress lately.”

Marco starts to laugh. He laughs and shakes his head, and then he says, “You understand nothing.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You better listen to me now. What if I was glad that she died?”

Iris clears her throat.

“You want to know the truth?” Marco says, “No, you don’t. Because people like you never want to know the truth. But that’s how it is. I wanted her to stop breathing. I prayed each night that she would just stop breathing.” He puts his hand on Iris’s chin and forces her to look at him. “I don’t deserve your pity. I don’t deserve anybody’s pity. You’re all a bunch of hypocrites. And I got a master in hypocrisy. I was fucking glad that it was over.” He lets go of her and leans back. “Now you know. Because you got it all wrong, see?”

Iris turns her head away.

The boy opposite to them removes the earphones from the tablet. “Let’s dance, honey.”

“Stop it,” his girlfriend says.

Marco opens his briefcase and reaches for his iPad. “He’s right.” A few seconds later a deep woman’s voice is singing in Spanish. “Dance with me,” Marco says. He takes Iris’s hand and pulls her up. “Please.”

Iris looks around. No one is watching. Some have taken out their books or magazines, others open their laptops. Some sit there, staring silently at nothing.

“You want to help me?” He puts his free hand on her hip and says, “Dance with me.”

Iris frowns at the teenage boy who gives her a thumbs-up. “That’s crazy,” she whispers.

“Life’s crazy,” Marco says. He holds her close and puts his mouth next to her ear and sings, “Porque sin tu amor se me parte el corazón.” He slowly moves her around and around. “The singer is from Mexico,” he says. “Exotic enough for you?”

Then, all the lights turn on again. The people cheer and the subway resumes her task, slowly in the beginning, but little by little regaining the usual speed with which she and her companions crisscross the underworld days and nights. The speakers say, “Next stop: Jungfernheide. This train terminates here. All change please.”

Iris opens her eyes. “We’re moving again.”

Marco continues holding her tight, and he continues moving her around. “Let’s not get off,” he whispers. “There’s just the desert outside. And it’s not even hot.”

And then the subway comes to a halt and the passengers get out. There’s an empty subway waiting for them, ready to help them reach their destinations, and it may seem much, much later that they get back on their way, but the time business is a peculiar one, especially for our couple that is left alone now, not dancing anymore, not holding each other anymore, but standing a foot apart, which means 0,3048 meters to them, looking at each other in embarrassment or in stupor or in fear, and maybe their gazes mean something completely different which we will never know and they will never know either and maybe together they have found a short, intense break from seclusion for a while, but there’s no need to decipher their glances – nor anybody else’s – to understand that there’s no hope at all at all at all.




A Guide to Literary Berlin

nerysTempted by The Reader Berlin‘s intensive writing workshops this summer? Berlin resident and literary advisor Nerys Hudson shares the city’s literary highlights, from walking tours and literature houses to festivals, bookshops and cafes.

Berlin occupies an odd space in the history of literary cities: less prestigious than London, less romantic than Paris, less visceral than Dublin, less frenetic than New York. Yet despite a decidedly underdog reputation, Berlin endures amongst writers, even if only for a brief moment in time.

Because it is the idea of a moment in time that makes Berlin special in literary terms. Berlin is a backdrop on which to paint a historical picture, observed as the world keeps spinning around you, but it will also force you to stop and look again. For this reason, Berlin is the ultimate of literary cities. It is a story that conspicuously evolves, and a story waiting to be explored. But where to begin?


Find the locations mentioned below on our map. Or view A Guide to Literary Berlin in a larger map.


Sightseeing Highlights

The Isherwood Walking Tour
Berlin, Bar "Eldorado"
Expat writers steadily flocked to Berlin in the early 20th century – from Robert Walser to Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabakov. But for most English speakers, Berlin’s most famous adopted son is Christopher Isherwood. Observing the sordid, splendid absurdities of the final days of decadence in Berlin, Isherwood’s diaries and Berlin novels are still a fine guide to the city, and the subject of Brendan Nash’s expertly led Isherwood Walking Tour. A circular one-hour walk around the Nollendorfplatz area, it’s a great introduction to the writer and the city he was so intertwined with. Click here for more information on the tour and booking.

Bebelplatz

Works by Alfred Döblin, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemmingway were among over 25,000 books committed to the flames at Bebelplatz, on the night the German Student Association of Nazi Germany ransacked libraries and burned literature deemed “un-german”. Peer down Micha Ullman’s glass plate in the middle of the square’s cobbles, and you’ll see only empty bookshelves. Nearby, engraved on a separate plaque is a line from Heinrich Heine’s play Almansor – “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” Bebelplatz, 10117 Berlin

Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof

Cemeteries are not top of everyone’s sightseeing list, and it may not be as sprawling or epic as the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but the Doroteenstädtischen Friedhof is the resting place for some of Berlin’s greatest minds. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Heiner Muller, Heinrich Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Christa Wolf and Bertolt Brecht (whose old residence over looks the Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof) are among the many residents of the cemetery, located in the Mitte district. Dorotheenstädtischen Friedhof, Chausseestraße 126-127, 10115 Berlin. Open: 8am until sunset

The Grimm Zentrum Library
Although intended for use by the students at Humboldt University, the Grimm Zentrum library is open to the public, although you will have to check your bag in first. The library is –no surprises – named after the famous Grimm Brothers, who spent their final years in Berlin, labouring over a project that would go on to become Germany’s first official dictionary many years later.

At first glance, the Grimm Zentrum does look like some sort of knowledgeable prison thanks to a very angular and thoroughly modern façade. But whilst it may not evoke Prussian opulence, the library is not without it’s own charms. Once inside you’ll find around 2 million books bolstering the edges of the building. In the middle of the library is what looks like a futuristic nerve centre, a tiered, multi-platform reading area. The Grimm Zentrum collection pales in significance when compared to the Staatsbibliothek’s 11 million strong titles – but you would definitely trade all those books to get a table in the centre here (and if you want that table, make sure you go early). Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum, Geschwister-Scholl-Strasse, 10117 Berlin. Opening hours: Mon-Fri 8am-12am. Sat-Sun: 10am-6pm


Literary Events

German language events can be found in the many literature houses dotted about the city, appealing to audiences on a distinctly non-commercial level. Often run as a not-for-profit, they focus is less on selling books and more on hosting readings and discussion forums. Berlin now has five literature houses, including LiteraturWERKstatt, the suitably imposing Literatisches Colloquium Berlin, Brecht Haus, Lettretage and The Literaturhaus, which is famed for its café as much as its cultural programme. Note – German readings are known for their length – events at bookshops like Dussmann’s colossal Kulturkaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse are resplendent with marathon 45-minute author readings.

Then there are the festivals. Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin offers up plenty of big names across the world for numerous panel discussions and readings. Mainly based in the auditoriums of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, it’s hard to find a suitable competitor for the ILB programme. Past authors include Tahar Ben Jelloun, David Mitchell, Isabel Allende and DBC Pierre. Poetry fans have a similar, sprawling event in the PoesieFestival, held mainly at the Academy of the Arts and offering 10 days of some 200 poets. English language events are at both festivals.

For other English language events, alongside the likely suspect of the British Council, the American Academy in Berlin run a programme of events, incorporating their resident fellows. Past alumni of the annual programme include Jonathan Safran Foer, Karen Russell, Katherine Boo and Jeffrey Eugenides.


Bookshops & Journals

Inevitably though, the main champions of literary events in English are the bookshops and local journals. Notable mentions go to SAND Journal and No Mans Land who have been known to throw legendary launches and some thought provoking discussions, cementing their reputation as true supporters of fine writing and translation.

The journals work closely with Berlin’s numerous English-language bookshops, where there is plenty of shelf fodder alongside the readings. Dialogue Books recently closed it’s physical bookshop doors, but there is still an online bookshop, a diverse range of events in the plush surroundings of Soho House and their new office at The Wye, with Tom McCarthy, A.M. Homes, Ned Beauman and Clare Messud all previous guests in their regular Literary Lounge.

Relative newcomer Shakespeare and Sons has all the hallmarks of your new favourite bookshop. A café with homemade bagels; a beautiful stock selection with second hand and new books on the shelves and an open attitude to programming that encompasses books, music and more. No surprise then that the Prenzlauer Berg outpost of the original Prague bookshop has quickly endeared itself to the city.

Another Prenzlauer Berg resident is Saint George’s English Bookshop. A Berlin bookshop stalwart, Saint George’ s boasts an eclectic line-up of events and a huge range of second hand books, alongside an enviable selection of works from smaller, independent presses. Expect Melville House, Dalkey Archive and tons of other treasures. Their collection of English translations of German authors is also one of the best in the city.

Over in Kreuzberg, Another Country has been a mainstay of literary nomads for some seven years, with the often eccentric and chaotic stock reflecting the deeply passionate tastes of owner Sophia Raphaeline. Books are generally for loan rather than sale, tying into Another Country’s community ethos. If you come later on Fridays and make it downstairs to their cellar, Sophie will nourish you with home-cooked food in an informal group of book lovers and writers, all for a very reasonable price.

Other shops worth a visit include the legendary Marga Schoeller bookshop, a venerable 80-year old institution with a very decent English language section and Ocelot, Not Just Another Bookstore, which lives up to it’s name thanks to it’s enlightened booksellers and beautiful café. Magazine lovers will find their heart’s desire at Do You Read Me?!, and their side project The Reading Room is the place to go for most international magazine launches. Finally, for politics, art and design, Motto, Pro-Qm and Gestalten Space offer three very different but equally brilliant takes on publications that you couldn’t leave confined to the coffee table.


Writer Resources

Established and aspiring writers regularly flow in and out of the city, enabled by grants and stipends or emboldened by numerous proclamations of cheap rents (a promise that considerably blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction).

As a result, workshops and creative writing courses are in abundance in the city, even amongst English speakers. If you are staying longer, online forums and the excellent Literary List email will alert you to the main courses (sign up by emailing Fiona at fiona_mclellan [at] yahoo [dot] com).

Author services can be found via The Reader Berlin, with editing, mentoring and much more all covered. Weekly evening creative writing classes are always booked up and deservedly so, with tutors covering poetry, screenwriting, non-fiction and fiction. And if you are looking for an excuse to escape to Berlin, their summertime intensive workshops will do the trick.

You’ll also want to find yourself a cafe to work from or read at, and with the legendary Romanisches Café (a sort of Berlin equivalent of Café de Flore) now reincarnated at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria, you may have to settle for less salubrious surroundings. St Gaudy Café and Café Hilde will do the job very well, and boast strong literary links alongside the perquisite caffeine supplies.

And if you are staying a while, be sure to check up on the blogs – from the mighty triumverate of Readux, Transfiction and Love German Books for recommendations and news through to Slow Travel Berlin, Sugarhigh and Berlin Stories for NPR for a complementary bigger cultural picture.


A Berlin Reading List

Finally, no guide to the city would be complete without a list of books about it. The following are highly recommended Berlin reading.

Going to the Dogs by Erich KaestnerGoing to the Dogs by Erich Kaestner
If you’ve read Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, the other great fable of the fall of Weimar is Erich Kaestner’s Going to the Dogs. Just as sharply observed as Isherwood, and yet seemingly more tragic due to Kaestner’s genuine despair as the city he called home begins to collapse.


The Wall Jumper by Peter SchneiderThe Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider
Definitely one of the best books ever written about the Berlin Wall, which features as a main character in a fiction that reads like history.


Roads to Berlin by Cees NooteboomRoads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Featuring numerous travelogues and reports on the way to constructing unified Berlin, the journalist Cees Nooteboom offers up a deeply personal account of the problems faced after the wall came down.


Alone in Berlin Hans FalladaAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Hans Fallada was one of the more troubled German writers, and his life story in general makes fascinating reading. Written in just 24 days, Alone in Berlin stands out as a truly remarkable story of resistance and courage in the face of terror.


Berlin Stories by Robert WalserBerlin Stories by Robert Walser
Turn of the century Berlin seen through Walser’s roaming, outsider eye. Arriving in Berlin in 1905, his observations on his meanderings through the city and its various inhabitants are bitingly funny, with beautiful, impressionistic descriptions of a metropolis in the making.


Berlin Blues by Sven RegenerBerlin Blues by Sven Regener
For Herr Lehrmann, the somewhat anti-hero of Berlin Blues, the responsibilities of life are there to be ignored, including the fall of the wall. There are some great descriptions of the Kreuzberg of West Berlin in this book, and the deadpan tone of Lehrmann is pitch perfect.


What I Saw by Joseph RothWhat I Saw by Joseph Roth
A precursor to Isherwood’s Berlin, Roth’s journalistic dispatches of the underbelly of 1920’s Berlin are both acutely observed and politically charged, anticipating the downfall of a fragile Republic.


Stasiland by Anna FunderStasiland by Anna Funder
Another blend of investigative journalism and sometimes not so subtle narrative, Anna Funder’s Stasiland still remains as one of the definitive books on life behind the Iron Curtain.


Book of Clouds by Chloe AridjisBook of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis
Less about Berlin geographically, Book of Clouds still manages to capture a very Berlin conflict between the eternal, and the fleeting. The unknowable, the obscure, the feeling of drifting, the creation of identity are all explored – although like the characters, it comes heavily shrouded in mystery.


Berlin Facts for the Bookish

Current population: 3.4 million

Selected Previous Residents: Erich Maria Remarque, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, The Brothers Grimm, Heinrich Heine, Christopher Isherwood, Erich Kaestner, Franz Kafka, Irmgard Keun, Heinrich Mann, Vladimir Nabakov, Joseph Roth, Kurt Tucholsky, Robert Walser, Billy Wilder.

Selected Current Berliners: Priya Basil, Greg Baxter, Jenny Erpenbeck, Günter Grass, Ida Hattemer-Higgins, CJ Hopkins, Daniel Kehlmann, Herta Müller, Thomas Pletzinger, Judith Schalansky, Bernhard Schlink, Kathrin Schmidt, Ingo Schulze, Donna Stonecipher, Clare Wigfall, Anna Winger, Tod Wodicka.

reader_berlinThe Reader Berlin are running a programme of intensive writing workshops in Berlin this summer – immerse yourself in the Travel Writing/Memoir workshop with Kimberly Bradley and Rory Maclean (July 1st-5th), Writing Outside the Box: Exploiting your Imagination to Create Fiction with Clare Wigfall and Tod Wodicka (July 15th-19th) and the Screenwriting Lab: 2013 with Donna Sharpe and CJ HopkinsAugust 12th-16th. More details here.




An abandoned amusement park in Berlin


Maedels logoThis week, as part of our Mystery issue, guest podcasters Mädels with a Microphone explore the curious world of Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park in Berlin. They uncover the sad story behind the park, its collapse into bankruptcy, and the destruction of the family who owned it. Spreepark is the place to go in Berlin for urban explorers. Once a popular GDR amusement park, then a privatized post-GDR fledgling amusement park and now covered in overgrown foliage and trees, trespassers can explore the carcasses of toppled dinosaurs, a 45-metre high ferris wheel that blows eerily in the wind and ghostly abandoned fun park villages. To listen to this episode, use the player below. Or you can subscribe on iTunes — just search “litro lab”.  Mädels with a Microphone are journalists and Berlin residents Jennifer Collins and Tam Eastley

You can find Mädels with a Microphone online, or on Twitter, Soundcloud or Facebook, or on itunes. In their podcast series, Jennifer and Tam strive to create informative and quirky long and short podcasts about the hidden side of Berlin. Their podcasts are entirely self-produced using Audacity free software and trusty little zoom H2 recorders.




The Anti-Slam London: Anti Valentine Special

anti slamIf you Google ‘anti slam’ you get a bunch of information about a pretentious-sounding poetry movement which took place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan a few years ago. Happily this event is absolutely nothing like that. The inspired idea behind this particular type of anti slam is a simple one: bring together a group of talented performance poets, and then challenge them to write and perform the worst poem they can possibly come up with. A jury then confers, and the lowest score wins.

The concept was dreamt up by a bunch of (presumably quite drunk) slam poets in a bar in Berlin back in 2009, and like-minded events have since been popping up all over the place. London’s first taste of the so-bad-it’s-good was last autumn – sample couplet: ‘oh sensitive soul that’s hurt by images of people who suffer / It irks me, like a YouTube video which won’t buffer’. The whole thing went down so well that the brains behind it all have decided to host another one this coming Valentine’s Day at Artch in Bethnal Green, East London.

Separating the chaff from the wheat this time around are literary types Shane Solanki, John Paul O’Neill and Comfort Cydelle. If past events are anything to go by, the victor may be decided by volume of audience laughter alone…

The Anti-Slam London: Anti Valentine Special is being held the Artch arts venue on the 14th of February. Tickets are £5 and doors open from 7:30pm. A sister event will be taking place in Berlin on the same date. You can find out more by visiting their Facebook page here.

Euan Monaghan