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The Leaves of Others

A local encounter I’ll never forget.

Alexander Wells

Germany

When I first meet Wolfgang he is matted and cross. My eyes are scanning the book covers on a table dominated by the classics of East German fiction: Christa Wolf, Günter de Bruyn, a well-thumbed Anna Seghers. His mutter comes at me: What do you want with all that stuff, he spits. The w is replaced by a predictable v, but his English is good. Trash, that is, it’s all trash, the whole lot of it.
I’m leaning off a bike I bought in the outskirts from a ruddy-faced caretaker in overalls who told me, after accepting my fistful of euros, that the previous owner had calamitously died just a couple of days before. I asked how, but my German wasn’t good enough to follow, so I let him say his piece – clearly moved – before taking the squeaky, uncomfortable ride back towards the trendy old East.
I lock up the bike and Wolfgang goes on. We are standing on the Unter den Linden, an expansive boulevard packed with tourists. The street was named after the Linden trees that line it on both sides; they were replanted in the 1950s but, in this vast construction site of a city, they might as well have been eternal.
It’s trash, you know. Wolfgang picks up Christa Wolf’s Kassandra and holds it in front of me like a turd. Really, I don’t know what you want with this stuff, all of you.
By “all of you” he surely means the young people who continue to flock to Berlin in their thousands: the gentrifying legions of artists, art admirers, bloggers, students, and lost souls. Do we know what we want with any of this stuff, in Berlin?
We who traipse our way about Berlin in the summer: we go to explore the crumbling structures of a fallen-down city. For us the city’s greyness means potential; a blankish canvas, an atmospheric ghostly playground. We go to play in someone else’s ruins.
But for those who grew up here, like Wolfgang did, the greyness of East Berlin is a personal heritage. Under a dictatorship that sought, eventually, to choke the life out of its creative elements – Zersetzen was the secret police’s word, “to decompose” – painting color on the walls has a very different meaning. Play is tinged with danger; art is smudged beyond repair by the filthy hands of power. And regret.
We take to talking, Wolfgang and I, as we’ll end up doing a few times on my visit. We reach a compromise: I am allowed my Christa Wolf, but I also have to buy a really vunderful book about old-time American movies. He tells me he hates the city, hates the way it’s changed – but he’ll never leave.


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