Thursday, 26 March 2015

From Jerusalem to Bethlehem: or Wo ist...?

There are a number of reasons why a few days in Berlin is a Good Thing. The least important one, despite it being the main event, is the rather large Renaissance Society of America 2015 conference which stretches over three packed days. More of that anon, if I ever navigate the 500 page programme guide. And once I have chosen lectures, will I find the right place out of the 100s of seminar rooms dotted around Humboldt University campus.

Another other reason is the marvellous podcast which the British Museum published last year to accompany their Memories of a Nation exhibition. It reawoke a long distant memory in me as I listened. So much of my German language class had been spent looking at the City of Berlin, I felt I'd already visited it in dreams.

The podcast opened by looking east, towards Poland, from the Brandenburg Gate; I began walking west into the sun, which was setting behind the monument. As I strolled down Unter den Linden towards the light, memories of parent pestering appeared. I had wanted to go to Berlin so much when I was studying but it had never happened. In some ways I'm glad because my current visit is imbued with both a deeper knowledge and appreciable symbolism of what it means to come here.

And the link with parents is desperately required at this moment. February and March contain too many father anniversaries for my already tenuous grip on reality. From his birthday in early February, to early March when he had his stroke, and the final weekend where he gave us all up... I wrote last year that I felt I was becoming more accustomed to this huge loss; on the contrary, it seems to be worsening. So to be here, thinking about the constant 'have you done your German homework' 'you'll never be able to converse if you don't practice' 'to understand the language is the key to the culture', on this weekend, seems apt. The fact his Spanish when he lived in northern Spain consisted of pantomime and loud slow English, just makes me grin.

He appreciated my dogged determination when it came to study, no matter how poor my marks for languages. He would be fascinated by my travails with Croatian and more than amused at my teenage 'enthusiasm' for learning verbs. Still, my passion for learning which he encouraged, has in my view, turned into an unhealthy obsession. Another reason I'm here is to find my way into a better PhD proposal. It turns out I need more focus and direction. To be honest, this applies to more than just this impossible 2000 word summary; it would be great if St Christopher would turn up with a map and compass and point me in the right direction.

Given my fraught state of mind recently, where some distance from my life, City, job, loved ones, is what is needed, I'm glad I came here. There was minimal prior knowledge. I arrived, lost at the airport looking for signs. I had no paper map, no signal on my phone, and only the haziest recollection of the location of the hotel. So with some hasty texting and terrible 'entschuldigung, wo ist Axel-Springer-stra├če?', I found myself unpanickingly lost, heading down Jerusalemstra├če. Tears pricked through when I finally arrived, my iffy back having given up, footweary, and bagheavy.

This afternoon, once I'd registered for the conference and safely in possession of a city map, I set out on a meander down unmemory lane. I sobbed at the senseless loss of life looking for freedom an der Spree, as I followed the line of the Wall. Destruction and death again, always being my point of dissolution. I wandered far and wide, heading back via the destroyed church of Bethlehemkircheplatz. All that is left is coloured cobbles to mark the foundations, and an incredible lit structure which soars above you. I tiptoed in feeling reverential in this skeletal house of worship. I may even have thought a prayer as I looked towards the apse.

As I turned from Bethlehem back towards Jersusalem, and home, I thought about the ways in which I'm currently lost. Mentally, intellectually, physically, emotionally; it's interesting to consider all these, almost dispassionately from a place which is at once familiar, yet completely new to me.

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