Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Surreal Life

After Englischunterricht today I am walking through Treptower Park into Neukoelln. It is one of those days in which one revels in the disorienting delights of being an Auslander. I can't locate reference points for anything, except perhaps Fellini or Lynch (I know it's a distinctly American trait to refer to life in terms of the movies, but I'm embracing it). I've been here a year, and although things hew towards the prosaic at times, this feeling bubbles to the surface occasionally, where everything is rendered enigmatic once more in a mirror world where nothing registers on my culture barometer.

Now I am sitting in a bookstore, Hugendubel, watching customers and booksellers interacting, but none of their mannerisms or gestures quite add up to anything recognizable in my "world lens". Well-dressed men in wool trenchcoats and tastefully appointed foulards are gliding through the store. They look like people, but they could be parrots telegraphing from some distant, elegant but inscrutable planet. You know how Americans tend to schlep and galumph through life, dragging their tired, fat asses around, stressed and upset? This only creates chaos for the more, shall we say, nimble members of society. Here, bodies are either tall and lithe or small and compact. Berlin is a city of endless, effortless motion. People seem to walk on air as they go about their business, and everything runs smoothly, like clockwork (even more so in Frankfurt). I feel like I am floating. I am serene, yet detached, invisible, like a good little flaneur. I am a camera, recording everything.

Oddly enough, the one thing that gives me a warm pang of recognition is the woman seated next to me emitting every minute or so a high-pitched cackle at nothing in particular (she has no reading material). Leave it to the mentally ill to bring you back down to earth. I put down the book I've been reading -- embarrassingly, Madonna's brother's new tell-all, in German (goofy I know, but pop culture is always good practice, and the Rilke I had been reading is a bit abstract for Deutschlernen) -- and lit out into the icy, unforgiving air. The thing about Berlin is, you have to make friends with the cold. Because it goes straight to the marrow of the bones. No need to sit indoors nurturing your SADD, get out there, do something and embrace the big chill.

I tread through the grey streets, now a soupy mixture of ice, black rock salt and cold gunk, roughly the texture of industrial Slushy. The flavored Arabic tobacco scents of the Shisha bars, packed out at all hours, waft through and begin to melt the icicles that had formed in my nostrils. It's a pleasant scent, all the flavors mingled into one Superflavor. Actually, it doesn't matter which kind you order, they all have the same synthetically generic and fruity taste.

On every corner and in points between are hundreds of Spielsalons, the mysterious game emporiums, also where hundreds of men sit smoking cigars, playing cards, billiards and God knows what else. I've never set foot in one of these palaces, as the facades look strangely forboding.

I walk through the cubist nightmare of Neukoelln as it approaches Kotbusser Damm, past countless hair salons, a local fixation. Half-lost in an Ipod wormhole, I began counting them. Here's one just for hair extensions (Verlaengerugen, also the name for a Visa Extension), there one for African hair. The Turkish ones are the best, because it's like an inverse macho version of the hair salon in Steel Magnolias. Men gossiping, pairing up, strutting around like geese in hoodies. Middle Eastern guys with big guts and back hair busily snipping, chopping and obsessing about, hair. There is something unaccountably sexy about this pack mentality and the overconfidence of these men (the uniform albeit somewhat ridiculous), and the dialectic of the girlish obsession with hair carries a certain poignance.

I set a mission for myself: I could use a haircut soon, so I diabolically plan to go to a Turkish Friseur and let them work their magic. Since I'm not so well versed in German or Turkish cosmetic vocabulary, I'll give them carte blanche. And I'll no doubt come out with some kind of Turkish Dairy Queen creation, perhaps a mullet with a tail fashioned from Verlaengerugen, a few shaved stripes on the sides with some really unsubtle blonde streaks thrown in for a streetwise look. Throw in some plucked eyebrows and double diamond studs and presto, it's Brian the Turkish rapper!

My hair reverie is momentarily interrupted as a shocking sight whizzes past me in the sidewalk. Two men on a bike, nonchalantly careening over the icy pavement, one standing on the back rack, hands on the drivers' shoulders. (Maybe they have an appointment with a Friseur?) I hate to use the word surreal, it's so cliched...how about... Fellini-esque?

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