“LOVE GROWS HERE”: THE FLÂNEUR IN PRENZLAUER BERG
Four inches of snow covered everything, like a layer of sugar dusting. It was wonderful, light and frothy, not wet, unpleasant and uncomfortable, like everyone said it’d be. At least it wasn’t yet. The street was still, and impossibly silent with just a hint of movement at the peripheries of my vision: a car door closing, a cyclist in the distance, a dog barking; the only consistent movement was the still gently falling snow. Certainly not a hint of the masses the city has been a home to for centuries. It was hard to imagine that the busy metro was just a short walk away.
This part of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, didn’t feel like a city. Here, you can stand on the center of the street without having to worry about traffic, though the traffic lights, irritatingly, work exactly as they did in other parts of the city. The buildings seemed old and alike, painted with the same color palette, running from ochre to cream and branching out into other pastels, the same sort of wrought iron balconies, long, regular rows of windows, and ornate doors.
In another part of Prenzlauer Berg, life passed by in droves; the streets sometimes busy and sometimes almost empty. Scooters, bikes, sleds and other modest forms of transport prevailed. Groups of children passed by, wrapped up like burritos in brightly colored parkas. One straggled behind the rest of her large family, diligently transporting an armload of snow that was beginning to crumble, leaving a trail of broken off chunks behind her. Adults strolled by with quicker steps and soberer wardrobes. Dogs were abundant, all pure-bred, well groomed, and on long leashes, creating the occasional stain on the otherwise pristine snow. Breath was visible, eddying in the air.
Berlin is a city of eccentrics and artists. Prenzlauer Berg had its share of both. Indeed, I later found out it was known as one of the city’s Bohemian Quarters. There was, for instance, a balcony encrusted with eerie garden gnomes and other kitsch porcelain figures, all ensconced in a bed of ivy. There was also a bare tree, labeled ‘Love Grows Here’ in English, adorned with wind chimes, many of those strips of colored plastic that spiral in the wind, and strings of seashells, a dreamlike sight when surrounded by snow. The graffiti, of course, was everywhere, neon and pastel, splattered across ornate antique doorways, the seal of the present marked on evocations of the past.
Birds clustered around a bush, piercing the silence with their high-pitched babble. As I came closer to investigate I realized that the bush was hung with bird feeders on a bird table. Sensing my approach they rose in a flurry of wings to the higher window sills of a building. I felt somewhat guilty for disturbing their meal.
Berlin the metropolis, was evident in Prenzlauer Berg, in its many cafes and restaurants catering to many different international tastes; from the ever-popular hummus and shawarma of the Middle East to Mexican, Vietnamese and, of course, German cuisine. The interiors of the small restaurants, where people could unwrap a few layers of insulation, were cozy and warm. The smell of and consumption of food enhances this feeling, making going back outside a harsh surprise, as it seems colder than it did before. The idea of a long sip of a mug of steaming coffee, held between cold fingers, seems enticing. Watched through a café window, the snow could be enjoyed without its unwelcome chill.
I was sad to leave, though the darkness was beginning to fall, prematurely from my perspective, and my cold fingertips and tired feet screamed at me that it was time to go. As I was being shaken around by the movement of the train I wondered when and if I would see snow that beautiful again and how long it would be before the day’s snowfall became filthy and unpleasant, as it inevitably would.
(Photos by Shenuka Corea)
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
As I buzz myself out of my Parisian apartment and light a cigarette, I wave at my Algerian neighbor through the window of his Arabic bookstore Librairie du Monde Arabe. Counting my steps to the tune of Edith Piaf’s Dans ma rue, “On My Street,” recently popularized by raspy-voiced Zaz, I swiftly stroll along my street. Russian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, a Greek fast food joint, a traditional French brasserie, a pub appropriately named after a saint — I consider how everything in this microcosm looks so well put-together and the mental snapshots sink in my memory as tableaux vivants I wish would never fade away.
Even outside the restaurants, I devour exquisite cuisine: the cuisine of the Parisian urban landscape. I think of my leisurely strolling as flânerie, a trope from French literary and cultural history that Honoré de Balzac, one of the founders of French realism, described as “gastronomy of the eye.” I dare to imagine myself in the worn-out shoes of the central flâneur, Charles Baudelaire, and venture to find myself in his words: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Worn-down though his shoes were, Baudelaire’s words remain forever spirited.
There is a word in Arabic that comes to mind: ghurba. My Arabic textbook Al-Kitaab translates the word as “longing for one’s native land, feeling of being a stranger” but its semantic field is much larger, ranging from detachment and homesickness to alienation and exile. Ever since I have first crammed my whole life into a standard checked-bag allowance and left my home of twenty years, I have felt ghurba in varying degrees. Drifting between my family house in Ljubljana, the NYUAD residence halls in Abu Dhabi, and my very first, very own apartment in the Parisian Latin Quarter, this uprootedness—albeit voluntary—only intensified as the idea of home started fading away. When the office of the administrative unit in my hometown handed me a document characterizing my legal status as “emigrant,” it foreshadowed my mental state of “homeless,” and the Slovenian words (zdomec and brezdomec, respectively) aptly indicate the blurred line between the two. But “home” only ever transforms: I have found mine in words, languages, poetry. Not unlike Baudelaire in his dialectic, I feel myself everywhere at least partly at home.
In fact, the “passionate spectator’s” sentiment gains in purity when I remind myself how many of the refurbished (read: gentrified) quaint dwellings throughout the Latin Quarter used to house this great French poet. Baudelaire lived his poetry and poetized his life in much the same way and I pass by many of his over forty accounted-for “homes” during my voracious strolls throughout the quartier. Few know that the small Île Saint-Louis, one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine—the other supports the lavish Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame—used to provide an abode for Baudelaire and his Club des Hachichins. In the 1840s, the “Club of the Hashish-eaters” included some of the great French literary figures, including Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.
Some paddle strokes further along the river, a plaque commemorates a former home to a couple of French intellectual giants, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I wonder if this address is where they seduced their students into ménages à trois. Decades before them, a band of fin de siècle Symbolists owned the quarter: the poètes maudits, cursed poets. In Paris, the times change, but the company does not. Before the tourist industry, the left bank of the Seine used to be The Left Bank, la Rive Gauche, the Paris of writers, philosophers, and artists. Beneath all the hustle and bustle of souvenir shops advertising “1 for 3€, 4 for 10€,” intellectual fireworks are inscribed on the historical memory. I can see the enchanting Luxembourg garden close by and almost feel the ambiance of Gertrude Stein’s salon, which hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound … On the other side of the jardin, young Jacques Prévert was growing up at the same time—perhaps my café crème used to be his Breakfast. I am mesmerized by the spaces marked with indelible intellectual history and a false sense of self-importance overcomes me.
As I approach my street, I reflect on my share in that history. I wonder what traces of ink I might leave on the palimpsest of the rue de l’école polytechnique, which harbors me so generously. The tiles I stride on overlay the fertile soil on which vineyards once stretched. There used to be an abbey here, frequented in the 5th century by Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who lent her name to the hill into which my little street was carved. Not much later, church schools sprung up, joined in the 11th century by one of the first universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Students and academics settled on this soil, echoed by generations that followed. This very soil then welcomed bookstores and printing houses and it cried when it was made to carry public gallows for the executions of sinners and unruly publishers …
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
And today? People from all walks of life pass their days on this little street that bears witness to layers upon layers of knowledge. The headquarters of L’Harmattan, one of the largest French publishers, stares back at me through my window and I bow down to everything the scraped green façade stands for. In my third-floor apartment, I live on top of a deep history of education.
Ali, the owner of the Lebanese restaurant opposite my house, wraps me a shawarma for dinner while we reminisce about Beirut we both last saw a year ago. He complements my Modern Standard Arabic with phrases in shami (the Levantine dialect) and I teach him how to wish bon appétit in Slovenian. Zaz’s voice slowly stretches out into the night: Dans ma rue il y a des anges qui m’emmènent, pour toujours mon cauchemar est fini. There are angels on my street that take me away, my nightmare is over forever.