Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Single Sweet May in Berlin

My friend Jackie and I are walking through Tempelhofer Park in Berlin, a park whose empty terminal is still and tiny across the wide expanse of the old runway. Tempelhof Airport was actively receiving and departing airplanes until 2008, then it became a park, and there has been controversy over redevelopment plans ever since. 

But today the weather is perfect, the sky mostly blue, and packs of casual, hip Berliners have swarmed the park for picnics and barbecues. Jackie and I sit for a moment and drink from our bottles of Club Mate and finish our conversation. We have been talking nonstop the past few days, and everything I have learned about Berlin Jackie taught me. But right now we’re talking about the personal, finishing our conversation about the afterlife—Jackie mentions her roommate’s philosophical take, which she says has calmed her anxiety about dying: her roommate says between life and death, only life exists if death is the end of consciousness. 

Information board about Tempelhofer Park

Panorama of Tempelhofer Park — low sling of building is the former terminal

Berliners barbecuing and picnicking in Tempelhofer Park

We’ve had a monumental walk over here, from Friedrichshein-Kreuzberg through Gorlitzer Park, onto Neukölln, and now to this strange airport-park. Along the way we were so absorbed in conversation that I sometimes had to remind myself to look around, to be a tourist. In Gorlitzer park, the fruit trees were exploding in almost surreal beauty. I couldn’t catch my breath as I took in trees unfurling savage pink blossoms in a series of stuttering realizations. In Neukölln, Jackie pointed out the hip cafes lining the street and claimed one was likely to hear American English in this part of town; when she first moved to Berlin 5 years ago it was completely different. She lived cheaply in Neokölln, very close to Temelhofer Park, and at that time it was totally Turkish and one rarely saw women or children on the street. All the establishments were Turkish owned. As if being driven in by the busload, “hipsters,” a group unidentifiable by race or ethnicity, have inundated Neokölln in the past couple years. Now the rents are higher, many of the Turkish establishments have been forced out of business, and many families evicted, Jackie says. But, on the topic of gentrification, Jackie is some sort of post-liberal: she says her eyes glaze over when the term gentrification is even mentioned because the history of cities is the history of cycles of gentrification. 

Self portrait with Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island

Tulips blossoming along the Spree

Fruit trees blossoming near the Oberbaumbrücke in Berlin

There is no doubt about it: Berlin is endlessly cool, way cooler than Amsterdam—more hip, more gritty, more nightlife, more street life. I love people watching in Berlin, I even love cruising in Berlin. Soon we exit the park and head into the heart of Kreuzberg and continue talking incessantly. Jackie says she feels like she is on drugs with me because we talk so much. To me it feels like we’re on some sort of connective brain transmission, corroborating all the things we have thought about but never expressed to anyone since we last saw each other. Clearly my whole point of coming to Europe on a cargo ship and struggling with the definition of home and loneliness was to meet Jackie here in Berlin and talk about it, at the very height of Spring. 


It’s almost bedtime for Jackie after a long day and little sleep. She’s enveloped in her duvet and about to nod off on the living room couch-bed in her shared flat. I’m flipping through channels on German television. Despite both of us being at the end of our battery packs, I ask her a huge question: What’s the deal with the Berlin Wall? I feel stupid even asking, since it’s a pretty famous part of history, but Jackie generously starts explaining what happened once the wall came down, even if her eye lids are drooping. I stop her—I need to know why the wall went up in the first place. She says simply that the Allies divided Berlin after WWII and the Soviets got East Berlin. The amazing nature of history and one’s place in it hits me: I knew the wall began to come down in 1989 and the reunification of Berlin was completed in 1990, but that was only 23 years ago. In the past 23 years, while I was coming further and further into adulthood in my own part of the world, the generations cycled through the growth and development of post-wall East Berlin unbeknownst to me, yet here I was, confronted with it on a very real basis. I was fascinated.

Graffiti stencil on facade in Berlin, city of cool, well-placed Graffiti

Weird raised pipes that run throughout Berlin periodically (in Mitte)

Mural through dark driveway near Schlesisches Tor station of the U1

I have heard stories about disgruntled Berliners yelling things such as “Learn German!” from open windows when they hear someone on the street speaking in English. I have heard tales of graffiti signs on buildings that point an arrow to a window with a caption that reads, “Insert grenade here.” I have heard anecdotes about people sneering and saying, “Go back to America.” Jackie says some of the old time anarchist punk tenants that moved into her building in the 90s gave her roommates trouble for moving into their flat in the 00s. “Those high nose academics,” the neighbors said. Jackie retorts, “They did the same thing in the 90s! The neighborhood developed and became a cool place for people to live because they came here in the first place!” 

Reflection of illuminated trees in a Berlin canal 

Night scene along the Spree

Yours truly and Jackie on the Oberbaumbrücke

There is something interesting in my preference about getting my information from Jackie rather than a text-based source, be it online or a physical book. No doubt about it, I am a researcher at heart, but this time my preference is for the primary source interview. On my first night in Berlin, Jackie told me there was no summer one year in the 1800s. She said a late spring gradually gave way to an early fall. The pronouncement haunted me like a dream I couldn’t shake the entire next day as I wandered heavy, grey Mitte: losing such a cherished season was actually possible on this mysterious planet? Three days later, after we left Tempelhofer Park, we checked out The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek (American Memorial Library) and Jackie pointed out the sign—she claimed the “Amerika” portion of the sign had been removed by protestors as part of a ballsy anti-America action a few years earlier. I wondered at Jackie possibly being nearby when that happened, of potentially being witness to it. In these two examples, the power of myth and vague memory propel the imagination: I found out later that indeed there was no summer in 1816 mostly because Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in April 1815, which was the biggest recorded volcano explosion in history. In actuality, there was no spring, summer, or fall in 1816, there was just a year of winter basically. As for the The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek, that turned out to be total myth: the sign always just said GEDENKBIBLIOTHEK. I love these layers of information, and it makes me contemplate the nature of “trueness”–if Jackie’s description of the Year Without a Summer catapulted my imagination into motion, then I think her take on it was valuable, even if inaccurate, information. 


It’s my last night in Berlin and I am pretty sure I’ve fallen in love with every person I’ve met, except the Americans that started talking to us outside the cafe tonight. I cringed as they claimed to be from Los Angeles (but were originally from Texas), I muttered as I admitted I was born in Glendale, I shuddered as the homely sporty one tried to pick up on Jackie’s adorable German roommate. I suppose this exposes the shell of being the only American I’ve developed in the past few months, and I am ashamed of my internalized self-hatred although I can’t wait to complain about these Americans to Jackie. But the bigger theme is the dragon I’ve been chasing ever since I conceived of riding a cargo ship across the Atlantic: I want to be unique, I want to be the trend setter, I want to be unparalleled and in order for that to happen I don’t want homely, jet-lagged Americans talking to me loudly in a hip part of Berlin.

Intersection of Oppelnen Straße and Skalitzer Staße, Berlin

View of interesting architecture from the Oberbaumbrücke, Berlin
Sun setting through tunnel of the Kottbusser Tor station of the U1

Walking to the next bar, I finally get my chance to complain, but through the course of my diatribe I realize to be set on fire by Berlin means to writhe in its cultural complex. Earlier in the day, walking home from the Berlinische Gallerie, I was making hasty resolutions to learn German and emigrate to Berlin; in the afternoon I scrapped the plan, pinpointing all the cultural strife one would have to overcome; now, on the eve of my departure, I relished the strife as only an outsider could. I laughed at the Germans so fervently clinging to their language, their culture, their post-wall city. Racism is alive and well in Europe, I said to Jackie, while in the U.S. political correctness has ravished any attempt at a productive conversation, and while in Amsterdam, the clever Dutch have capitalized on their reputation of tolerance and good English speaking abilities.  

Sunday morning vantage between the U-bahn and S-bahn after a night of dancing at the Berghain

Luckauer Straße (easy easy easy easy easy)

Home sweet home: Görlitzer Bahnhof station of the U1

After a few more Cinco de Mayo shots of tequila (after all, Jackie and I did meet in San Francisco where the bastardized Mexican holiday is celebrated by getting wasted), we shuffle home under the rails of the U1 and Jackie promises me David Bowie’s newest music video, which is a tribute to the years he spent in Berlin in the 70s. She keeps saying everyone thought it was great because it was made by a famous videographer but she’ll wait for me to make my own pronouncement. I sense an indictment brewing. Once home, she cues it up on her laptop and I try to view it with an open mind. I think, well the song absolutely sucks. I think, who is that chick’s face? I think, why are there subtitles of the lyrics? Jackie yells, “How could anyone take this seriously?! All the names of the streets are spelled wrong!” 

With Jackie’s familiar world view I find something I had lost inside myself a long time ago: the courage to be outspoken, the self assurance to love, the promise of blossoms unfurling their petals. Spring has come to Europe and this won’t be another year without a summer. 



and more blossoming Berlin

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Queen's Day 2013 in Amsterdam

de Bijenkorf department store on Damsplein got in the full spirit

The new royal family waving from the balcony of the Palace in Damsplein (from

In case you didn't know, The Netherlands has a constitutional monarchy, and the Dutch love their Queens. This is most apparent on Queen's Day (Koninginnedag), April 30, the Dutch national holiday in which basically all people of the Netherlands flood Amsterdam wearing orange and paint Dutch flags on their cheeks. The entire city turns into a combination of an open air market, a dance party, and a endless procession of boats blasting techno music. But, the fun starts on Queen's Night, the night before, but you gotta be careful not to party too hard, because the next day is even better!

View of a politie mobile with the decorated de Bijenkorf in the background, Queen's Night

The palace balcony the night before the grand appearance

Close-up of the inflated crown on the roof of de Bijenkorf on Queen's Night

2013 was a very special Queen's Day because it is the last for a long time. Queen Beatrix's son Willem-Alexander ascended the throne this year (first king since 1890!), so beginning in 2014, the holiday will be known as King's Day (Koningsdag) and will be moved to April 27, Willem-Alexander's birthday.

Most of the pictures in this little section were taken either on Keizergracht or Prisengracht.

Homomonument represent! (flashing the "W" sign for Willem-Alexander)

My roommate and me

Prisengracht is the most popular canal for boating

My roommate and I went to that dance party under the clown for a while

This was my second Queen's Day and I enjoyed myself just about as much as I did in 2004 when I studied here. I sort of remembered it as drunk people flooding the streets along the canals and huge concerts in all the squares, but this year it drove home a very endearing characteristic of Dutch culture to me: their ability to be enterprising and sell almost anything (fruit, sandwiches, clothes, electronics, furniture, records, baked goods, recyclable cups, access to their toilets) and their ability to make a fun, almost naive party for all ages—my favorite just might have been all the children getting in on the fun which is clearly not reserved for adults only. This might sound crazy but I also admire how the holiday is almost comprised of people wholesomely celebrating their country and their culture. It's refreshing to not have to constantly question patriotism and just have fun.

View from a friend's 3rd floor apartment near Leidseplein 

Detail of my orange shoelaces! 

The Dutch flag 

After a long day of walking around the city, dancing with strangers on Prisengracht, meeting new people, having dinner with friends, and watching the royal parade on boats along Het Ij on big screens at Museumplein, I headed home. As I neared the canal closest to my apartment, Kostverlorenvaart, I slowly realized that debris from a boat was floating in the silvery purple water, and then I realized the last of a group of Dutch hipsters were extracting themselves from the canal. Poor partiers! Their boat had capsized and their speakers, bean bag chairs, and beer cans were floating in the canal. Well, at least everyone got out safely!

Debris from capsized boat in canal Kostverlorenvaart

This dude seemed jovial enough even though his party had officially ended

Good night Amsterdam!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Being a Writer vs. Living as a Writer: The Story and the Stories about the Story

“And how much of that have you actually accomplished?” the third poet asks me. I had started the conversation when we were in line for the toilet, and now we’re packed into the door jam of the tiny venue, discussing what I do in Amsterdam. He had asked me if I study or work here? I answered I was working on a novel and a poetry chapbook inspired by my experience sailing on a cargo ship from Argentina to Belgium last summer. The stories about the story. 

“You rode on a cargo ship?” 

I answer the question the way I usually do, with the story I no longer want to tell: Yeah, I took a cargo ship across the Atlantic… it took 35 days... it was an Italian cargo ship... no, I didn’t work on the ship... My trademark Californian monotone. My gaze fixed toward the floor. I’ve told the story so much I now regard it as boring. Still, it remains central to my creative output. Still, it was immensely formidable to the following months. Still, my subconscious brandishes it like a medal of honor: in a recent nicotine patch dream I tried to choke out the story to long estranged friends I haven’t seen in years.

Interactive component of the MAS Museum in Antwerp, Belgium

In so many cities, in so many months I’ve used the stories about the story of the cargo ship as an alibi as if I needed one to be present: I’ve told artists, poets, landlords, friends, strangers, family members, and roommates that I’m writing a novel and a chapbook about my experience on a cargo ship. I’m trying to decide how much to make fiction and how much to make an historical account of oceanic shipping; I’m trying to decide how long the chapbook should be, how many individual poems I should include.

Shipping route diagram in the Port of Antwerp exhibit at the MAS Museum

I’m on a high speed train to Belgium, I’m sleepwalking through the Houston airport sobbing behind Versace sunglasses, I’m in a bar in New Orleans’s Marigny yelling above the jukebox, I’m getting ready to go to a squatter art space/dance club in Amsterdam and all the time I’m dragging the shackles of the story and the stories about the story behind me. I’m disappointed when people don’t ask more questions; I’m put out when someone latches on to its uniqueness. 

Gloves hanging above Hazenstraat in Amsterdam

But this is the thing: I’ve written in the novel only once since I left Amsterdam last fall. I’ve worked on the poetry chapbook only a few times since the New Year. My alibi is a fraud. 

* * *

The public library is typically low key for a weekend night. I’m curled up in one of the chairs by the windows on the 6th floor that cups its form around your body. Amsterdam’s understated yet enchanting skyline sits modestly across the Oosterdok and I’m not ashamed to be alone in the library on a Saturday night, chuckling to myself over the latest novel I’ve plucked from the Engels – Romans section. In fact, I am quite pleased with myself. 

Colorful view above Damsplein in Amsterdam;
twice yearly a carnival occupies the square

A couple weeks ago I sat in a kitchen in Antwerp and typed Skype messages as raindrops fell on the skylight above my head. I was messaging a very important figure that, in many ways, is the emblem of the cargo ship story and the novel/poetry-turned-alibi. Mikhail, my steward. Finishing my coffee and itching for a shower, I shook my head and turned off the screen of my iPad without responding to his last message. I rubbed my eyes wearily. I turned the iPad back on and tweeted, “I’m watching the end of my story develop right before my eyes.” It was settled, for me at least: I was never going to see him again. 

Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium

More recently I passed out seven copies of a 13-page nonfiction essay double spaced and printed on good quality A4 sized paper to my writers workshop. In the weeks between sitting under the skylight in Antwerp and this moment in my writers workshop I had written and revised this essay four times. I pitched it to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and compiled a mental list of other places to submit it. I declined invitations to go out with my roommates and friends to work on this essay instead; I willfully logged off Twitter to turn my attention toward this essay. The subject of the essay was not the cargo ship, it was not the novel about the cargo ship, it was not the poetry chapbook about the cargo ship, and it was not even set within the last year. It went back to the beginning of 2011, to the time of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and all that shook and flooded my private experiences of the same time. 

I am prey to a dangerous type of nostalgia: my nostalgia misdirects the affection for a specific place, time, and aura as affection for the current existence of the people who were there with me. The shorter the time period, the intenser the experience, the more likely this dangerous nostalgia will take root in my heart. I am left wandering neighborhoods that belong to the past alone, longing for the zeitgeist of the past period and obsessively remembering the people who use to be there. The only way to time travel and avoid sentimentality is to write, to encapsulate that past moment and its energy in a coherent composition. 

Facades on the island of Procida in Naples Province, Italy

In this way I mix up being a writer and living as a writer: there is some division between living the experiences that make for good stories and actually writing the stories, and I am still trying to find it. 

* * *

I’m dodging parked cars, laundry lines, scooters, and other pedestrians down Gradoni Chiaia in Naples; I’m growing dizzy watching the chaos of tiny cars, scooters, and motorcycles revolve around the Umberto-Sanfelice traffic circle; I’m swooning from the quiet solace the view from Castle St. Elmo provides on top of the hill, a breath-taking vantage of the city, its port, the bright Tyrrhenian Sea golden in the setting sun. This is where my people from the ship come from, and I recognize the willingness of the locals to communicate in bad Spanish, broken English, and gestures as the same welcoming temperament I found on the ship.

Congested traffic route of Gradoni Chiaia/Via St. Caterina  da Siena, Naples, Italy

I find Chief Chef Rafael’s cuisine in the courses served at Osteria della Mattonella one street over from our apartment: fried cod with its bones intact submerged in marinara sauce with floating olives and a soup of blended spinach with beans. I find the motion and familiar signage of my cargo ship in the ferry to the island of Ischia. I find Crescenzo’s hand movements in the baker’s and the private car driver’s communication methods. I find Fabio’s boyish good looks in the countenances of baristas running espresso shots down the narrow, cobble-stone streets. I find Gigi’s plump figure and sad smile buzzing through traffic on Corso Vittorio Emanuele on a grey Vespa. 

View of gulf of the Tyrrhenian Sea with cargo ship from Castle St. Elmo, Naples, Italy

I am here with my travel companion, a good old friend from Los Angeles, and I will not see anyone from the ship. I suppose I am trying to create new memories but really I am chasing the zeitgeist of the Grande Buenos Aires; despite this I fight my dangerous nostalgia with a reticent, road-worn heart. I observe Naples as an outsider; I will never delve into the real life experience of a Napolitano. Bittersweet is an understatement in this sense. I will spend most of my trip alternating between the melancholy this causes me and the euphoria the invigorating beauty brings me.

Panorama of Pompeii, Italy

It’s somewhere between Positano and Pompeii, on the only highway to and from the Almafi Coast, Via Guglielmo Marconi, that I realize it’s ok to wait a couple years to write the stories about the story of the cargo ship. It’s the distance I need to separate living as a writer from the coherent composition that will take shape. Sitting on top of a green hill at the back of the ancient town of Pompeii and lapping up the vista of the ruins, the modern town just at the border, and the Tyrrhenian at the horizon, I take solace in my recent writing endeavors: encapsulating the zeitgeist of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in an essay, encapsulating my sleep deprived sophomore Spring semester in a poem, encapsulating the denial of the abandonment of my step-mother during my 4th grade Easter play in a poem. I don’t think these experiences are validated by the essays or the poems; the essays and poems are validated by my willingness to submerge myself in the original experience. 

View of Naples, the port, and the base of Mt. Vesuvio, Italy

As Clarice Lispector wrote, “I’ve looked into myself and discovered I want raw, bloody life.”