Saturday 19 May 2012

Berlin notebook: in the café

When I arrive in a city for the first time, my most urgent priority is to find a place to drink coffee in the morning. As a general thing I find morning to be a very unsatisfactory business, an unwelcome accident that brings the calm oblivion of sleep and dreams all screeching to an insulting sudden halt. There are people who talk of climbing out of bed in the morning, or even of quaintly hopping up, but I have never understood these innocuous playground metaphors. I am wrenched out of bed, otherwise I would lie there all day. Amid the violent assault of morning, amid this cruel inhospitable turmoil that is called Waking Up, I have a terrible need for something calm, stable, friendly, and predictable. And so the morning coffee is my anchor. Without a good consoling place to drink some coffee and scribble in my notebook in the morning hours I am all adrift, just as some people come unmoored if you take away the television or the daily crossword puzzle or the telephone call from Mother.

So when we got to Berlin and moved into our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, I quickly located the coffee shops in the surrounding streets. At first I went to a place called Café CK on Marienburger Strasse. Now by any ordinary standards, this is an excellent place to take your morning coffee. The baristas are friendly and attractive, the coffee is good, the big blue sofas are cosy and anonymous, the walls are adorned with paintings, the music is smooth, a little bluesy, never too loud or too distracting. Everything is in order, as the Germans like to say. But after my fourth consecutive morning at Café CK, I began to feel vaguely troubled and uneasy. Something about the place wasn't right, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. 

On the fifth day I ordered coffee and sat down and looked around me – and that was when it struck me. The place was too clean. The sofas were all as good as new. The floor was polished. The walls looked newly painted. The espresso machine had been lovingly shined and polished like a boy's first car. Even the light fittings all matched; not one was cracked or broken. Everything was, in a word, perfect.

I left without finishing my drink and went out into the street. On the corner a boy was standing on a cardboard box and playing an accordion. I tossed a coin into the hat and crossed the road. I walked to Café Slörm on Danziger Strasse, where the roughly fitted floorboards creak and all the furniture is worn, faded, decrepit, forty years old and falling slowly to pieces. The front door is plastered with stickers that are peeling away to reveal the scrawled graffiti underneath. The coffee tables are rough wooden crates turned upside down with bits of rusted nails jutting from the corners. There are little homemade shelves with flowers arranged in beer bottles beside mismatched lamps in tattered yellow lampshades. The walls are crumbling away to reveal the red bricks underneath; everywhere there are signs of repair, patches of repainting, nails hammered in and pulled out again. Here and there one sees furtive ironic outbursts of graffiti. Against the big front window are some orange vinyl barstools; you can sit there only if you don't mind resting your feet on the cast iron radiator. Or you can sit facing the bar on a row of vintage folding cinema seats; they look extremely chic and extremely uncomfortable. 

Out behind the bar there is a second room: you can see it from here, since some practical-minded person has made a window by smashing a rough hole through the dividing wall. In one corner the floor is raised on a carpeted platform, supporting a green sofa and a steel table that looks as if it was once a filing cabinet. Above the sofa, stuck to the wall with tape, a series of nude sketches done in charcoal. Big flat cushions and worn velvet cushions and books and magazines scattered on the floor. A table in the far corner appears to be a sort of workbench; someone has taken apart one of the wooden crates and stretched chicken wire around the sides. Perhaps they will use it for mice, or small rabbits. Perhaps guinea pigs. Or perhaps it is merely art. In another corner a wooden chair is painted all over with whimsical cartoon pictures: a whale sipping Coca-Cola through a straw; vines and flowers sprouting from the wood; an enormous cat with enormous cat eyes. A few more chairs sprawl idly around a three-legged table. In the very back there is a high bird cage, the home of two South American parrots named Paula and Leo. A chalkboard on the wall asks you not to feed the birds. Leo flaps his wings and squawks; the floorboards shudder with punk music; everything is a little too loud and a little too severe.

I sit here and drink my coffee, happy at last, and I have never gone back to that other place with its matching decor and comfortable chairs and shiny bright espresso machine.

The Berlin aesthetic: it had got to me. And as long as I was in that city I could abide nothing that was clean, or new, or flawless, nothing that had not already been repaired and ruined two or three times, nothing that was more than barely serviceable, already (and again) on the brink of decay. 

And so at Café Slörm I drink my coffee from a cracked bone china cup while a mangy dog comes over and sniffs around my feet, and the barista sits outside smoking a cigarette on the broken concrete steps. A pretty girl rides by on an old repainted bicycle made of spare parts. The handlebars are very high and wide. I thumb through one of the books on the overturned crate beside me. It is a scholarly monograph, lavishly illustrated, a feminist interpretation of pornographic photography in 1920s Berlin. Some of the pictures are very good. 

The music gets louder; it pounds in your head like a hangover. The coffee tastes a little burnt. The yellow armchair is a little too low, and all the vinyl is peeling off the sides. You have to adjust your weight carefully if you don't want to feel the broken springs digging into your back. Like any self-respecting Berlin café, the total effect of the place is to make you feel that you are in someone else's living room – someone who might have, to be sure, some vaguely sinister intentions, but who is nevertheless quite sociable and hospitable on the whole.

I get another coffee. I kick my shoes off and put my feet up on the chair beside me. I scratch a few lines in my notebook and read the chapter about Anita Berber. I study the photographs and conclude that she was rather beautiful, in that vacant pitiless nightmarish sort of way. The sun falls through the window across the floorboards. I close my eyes to the sun and the music and the sounds of making coffee. It is good to be here. Yes, there is a certain tattered homeliness about it all, and everything is all right now, here in the unassuming dilapidated comfort of morning in a Berlin café.

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