On the morning of our second day, I wake up feeling chipper. Everyone else is still asleep, so I make my way into the common room with rice biscuits from last night and a book. There’s only one other person in there, a young man, and we acknowledge each other with a nod but don’t speak. I sit down at the table furthest from him and put my aching feet up on the opposite chair. Yes, my mother taught me better manners, but it’s too early and I’m too far away from home to care.
Acutely aware of the noise my biscuit-eating is making, I turn from my book and in the young man’s general direction once in a while with an apologetic expression. He smiles, and after some time, stands up and settles into the chair next to my feet.
„What are you reading?“
His accent is most definitely Cockney, I notice, but he doesn’t really look like your average Londoner. He’s much more Hitlerjugend-Berlin than Johnny Rotten. I lift my book up so he can see the title.
„Isherwood, aye? Great writer. Good pick for Berlin, too.“
„Yeah, I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. It was up on my shelf and I kept glancing at it, you know, but then when I was packing for this trip I saw the book and knew I was saving it for this occasion.“
Strangers make me nervous. I become chatty and awkward with them, more often than not offering bulks of information that are completely unnecessary. The young man only smiles.
„I know what you mean. Same thing happened to me with Kundera. Then I went to Prague, and I was mighty pleased I hadn’t read his books before.“
The conversation flows on. I’d read Kundera countless times when I was in high-school so I can hold my own. We talk politics and ideology for a while too, then skip to trivial stuff, like – how do I find Berlin so far, how long has he been here, which clubs would he recommend, what sort of music do I like. It’s a pretty standard range of topics between two people in their twenties who have just met in a hostel in the early hours of the morning. I find out he’s traveling through Europe (or should I say, the world), giving English lessons here and there to support himself and make money for the next adventure. He’s older than me, also more irresponsible. I’m reminded of the dilemmas I’ve been having for the last couple of months (or years, to say the whole truth), and feel a great sense of relief. Misery, after all, loves company.
„So, what are your plans? First whole day in Berlin!“
„I’m not really sure. I guess we’ll probably do the museum tour, see as many as we can. I’d like to see the gallery with the impressionists, can’t remember which one it is.“
„You probably mean the Alte Nationalgalerie. It’s stunning. I’d make it a priority if I were you.“
My brow arches of its own volition, he arches a brow back.
„I find it refreshing to talk to a guy who knows about art.“
„I don’t know what kind of guys you have there in your wild country, but I can assure you, us British are very cultured.“
We laugh for a while and exchange a few quips about national stereotypes, when I see Ellie going toward the bathroom. Time to get ready, then. My gaze pauses on the black notebook he’s shielding in both hands as I offer a hand to say goodbye.
„What’s that, then? Your diary?“
„Maybe. It’s where I scribble an odd line or two sometimes.“
My brow reacts again.
He shrugs his shoulders and releases an exasperated sigh, as if he’s been forced to answer this question a million times before.
„I guess you could call them that.“
„Okay. So you’re The Poet then.“
„What do you mean, I’m The Poet?“
I can feel my cheeks blushing. Why am I telling him something this private?
„In my journal. I keep a journal when I go on trips. Well, I keep a journal all the time, but I do it religiously when I go abroad. I guess it’s something to do with the fear of losing my memory, you know, soon-to-be-professional deformation.“
The Poet smiles his first genuine smile and shakes his head. His morning hair looks ridiculous after. As I start down the hallway toward my room, I hear my name being called from behind and turn around to see him leaning against the door frame.
„Monk by the Sea.“
„It’s a painting. Friedrich. You’ll love it, and you’ll tell me all about it this evening.“
I nod my head in the manner of an obedient pupil.
A few hours later, I know exactly what he means. I’m standing in front of a gloomy painting in the Alte Nationalgalerie and my nostrils seem to be hallucinating. They’re breathing in a salty, damp air you only find near the seaside although we’re nowhere near it now. We passed by a river on our way to the museum, but rivers are sweet and humid and earthy. It could never account for this aggressive invasion of my senses. Ellie stares at the painting as well, looking to me now and then to see if I’m ready to move along. She was a child born close to the sea. Perhaps you can only ever appreciate that what you do not have.
„He told me I’d like the painting. What an understatement!“
„The guy at the hostel?“
The day passes by in a haze of art and sore feet. The galleries at Museumsinsel are close together, but we’re exhausted by the time we finish our tour of Pergamon. As excited as I was to see a copy of a Greek square and mini ancient cities, I’m in desperate need of a break and food. We try to leave the complex, and get lost in a maze of old buildings. There’s a kiosk nearby, though, so we order a couple of paninis and sit down in a small green area opposite a hallway of columns.
Music reaches us unexpectedly. It’s a sole violinist playing in the hall, something familiar – the name of the piece escapes both Ellie and myself, although it’s on the tip of our tongues. We sit there a while longer after we’ve eaten, sorting through our impressions of the day. Neither speaks a lot, but we’re in quiet agreement. This is the Berlin we were expecting to see. It’s a city far removed from what I’d seen yesterday as the plane was landing. It’s ripe with art and culture, with artists. I think of my qualms about appropriating the title. In a city such as this, I might even give it a go.
„I’m afraid of going back home. This place is so perfect, it’s inspiring. I feel like I could do anything here. Write, take pictures… It’s like I’ve woken up. Seeing all these great works of art, these people on the streets doing their own thing… I really think a place like this helps you develop as an artist.“
I start my self-pity monologue as I have countless times before. Ellie listens without a word. Her support and willingness to debate my insecurities have long since awarded her the place of my number one confidante.
„I know what you mean. It’s beautiful.“
Leave it to her to put things in the most succinct manner imaginable.
Later, we stroll around the city aimlessly and I buy a new pair of shoes because my heeled ones are already starting to seriously injure my feet. Even after six years of frequent traveling, I can’t pack a case to save my life. Back in the common room eating our lunch, I keep glancing around to see if The Poet will make an appearance. He comes just as Ellie and me are joking about our age, contemplating going to sleep right away and not visiting the clubs.
His hair is still as ruffled as it was in the morning, but he’s got a pair of gray trousers and a waistcoat on. Smiling at me as he enters, he pulls up a chair to our table and motions with his head to Ellie.
„Is this your comrade, then?“
I chuckle and Ellie looks slightly uncomfortable.
„Yes. This is Comrade Ellie. Comrade Ellie, The Poet.“
They both roll their eyes at me, as I innocently take a sip of mint tea and pretend not to notice. He talks at great length about a pupil he was teaching in the morning and tries very hard to amuse both of us, trying even harder to give the impression that it’s not his intention at all. After an hour or so, we’ve drunk the beers he had stashed in the fridge. Ellie gets up and says she’s going to take a nap. I say I’m not that tired, a shameless lie. She winks at me as she saunters off.
„So, did you like the Friedrich?“
„Like would be an understatement,“ I answer truthfully.
„Any others make an impression?“
I have to think about this for a while because all of the art we’ve seen has been amazing. But I don’t want to tell The Poet this, lest he think me ignorant or tourist-y.
„There was a painting of a room I really liked, I think it was Menzel’s. And a pretty impressionist rendition of Unter dem Linden. Some Renoir and Monet. A picture of a skeleton, Death that is, leading a procession…“
He nods his way through all of these, I have a feeling he’s seen them countless times till now and knows exactly which pieces I’m talking about.
„The angel at the entrance. It made me think of Wenders.“
„And…well, a fiddler. We were eating our lunch in the garden and there was a fiddler playing in that big hallway with the columns. I really liked that.“
„I really liked that as well.“
The Poet looks at me very strangely now. As if he’s thinking of whether or not to divulge some sort of secret. He shakes his head and turns to me with a most intimate expression.
„You know, the first week I came to Berlin.. I used to go to that garden every day just to hear the fiddler. He reminded me of why I was doing this in the first place. Traveling, writing, enjoying art. When I heard him, I thought – everything is possible in this city. That’s why I haven’t left so far. This is the city where you can make things happen.“
As I hear him say the words that mirror my own of that afternoon, I am struck again by the funny coincidences that seem to bind all our lives. That I should meet this man at this particular time, when I am having qualms about everything imaginable. That we should both find ourselves in this hostel on the old border, living day to day, our lives (more or less) neatly packed in a small suitcase.
„I know exactly what you mean. I’ve missed art more than I even knew, only it took a day like this one to notice it.“
„Oh, it’s not over yet. We’re going to an evening exhibition tonight. You and your comrade okay to go? Pick you up in an hour?“
Winking at me, he stands up and disappears into the hallway. I sit still confused for some time, then go back to my room. Ellie perches her head above the bed frame and gives me a mischievous look.
„We’re going to another exhibition in an hour, with him.“
That’s all I can say before I stumble onto the bed and close my eyes, wishing for sleep to come. Only it doesn’t. A strange art cinema piece is showing in front of my eyes – one in which The Poet has the starring role. I see him kissing me in front of a modern art painting, I see us strolling the industrial neighborhoods of Berlin holding hands, I hear him recite vague poetry to me in the evening in a seedy bar.
I’m so far gone, I think, mentally rolling my eyes.