There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.” But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.
This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.
Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:
This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:
There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.
Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.
On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.
Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:
- From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
- From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
- A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.