Berlin Journal - First Month

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 Snow at MilchhofBack Yard of Milchhof BerlinBerlin Drawing Orange Yellow Grey 



17/01/2007              Berlin is a safe city at least this part of it: Mitte North, Prenzlauer Berg, which is what I’m judging it by.  Full of young people, everyone on bicycles, or using the trams and U-Bahns that run around the clock, it feels very comfortable to be going home late at night surrounded by these people out too.  Evidently there is very little mugging and one isn’t hassled at all.  People are correct and keep to themselves naturally.  That makes life so much easier; I don't mind walking back at midnight from the internet cafe or taking a tram, there are always lots of other people waiting there too. 


Once again fey freckled friendly Manfred has come bringing light.  One of the bulbs in the studio was kaput and since the ceiling is fifteen feet high there was no way I could change it.  Not a problem, in he came with a tall stepladder and cheerfully fixed the light.  Nothing really is a problem here as I have found there is always a way round.  Checking out the local art shop, they say they can do the canvases for me in only a week, and besides that, I could carry them back to the Milchhof with some help and so save on transport charges.  Manfred and I have had a discussion that may well work out, in that when I leave I could take the canvases off, rolling them up to take to London and then Manfred can re-use the stretchers.  Of course I have to do them first, but that would be a practical solution.  Unless they turn out not to be able to be rolled up which is always a possibility, fortunately acrylic mediums are amenable.


16/01/2007             Keeping up my newly renewed socialising, I met up with two other friends of a friend, this time writers from New York.  They were rather surprised that they had to enter my studio crouching down through the dungeon-like basement so as not to hit their heads on the pipes and emerging covered in plaster dust, but were sportingly witty about it.  They took me out for a great German lunch, food piled up and marvellously fast and amusing New York chat.  Having been an artist hermit for a month, more or less, in the studio, it made me elated to be with them and gave me so much energy to do my work.  Maybe it is because of the ground work put in, but now I feel on solid ground with what I’m doing.  And it does somehow come out of all that I’ve been experiencing here.  The one thing that was a bit of a shock was when I went to Boesner’s today, the big art shop, they said it would be at least a month before I could have the stretched canvases of the large size I want.  That has to be got around somehow.


15/01/2007         Talking of flea markets, I went back to see if the perfect white bowl was still there, and it was, but before putting down my thirty euros, I wandered around the market and there in the centre, a woman, bundled up in a big brown coat, scarf round her head against the biting wind, eating a sandwich, had all sorts of bowls, including a plain white bowl of the same sort of size.  Asking her how much it was, I asked her several times because she kept saying eine, I thought to the woman next to me rummaging through the stuff.  Finally she held up her thumb, “eine” to me.  One euro, I couldn’t believe it but quickly gave her a euro for the bowl, which she even wrapped up.  Not perfect like the other one, not original thirties plain roundness, but perfectly good.  The way using perfect as a modifier shows its’ imperfection.  In fact I like its’ utility plainness.  Tableware instead of china, but fine.  On the stall  I also spied a blue and yellow fluted glass bowl that had been hand-painted by someone, and pressing my luck I tentatively asked about the price.  That she breezily said I could have for half a euro.  Having gone there with the intention of buying one bowl for thirty euros, I came away with two bowls for one euro fifty.  Not the perfect one but great.   How satisfactory.  Going back, I passed the writer D.B.C. Pierre and we said Hi.  Well he looked bemused, (as he’s familiar to me from television and his books), but friendly.  In my elated mood I then spent another euro on some daffodil stalks and went home whistling I’d like to say, as it would convey my mood, unfortunately I have never been able to whistle, but you know what I mean.


14/01/2007             An art shop, a flea market, both within five minutes walk, a Kaiser food supermarket next door, the tram at the corner, two different U-Bahn underground stations within ten minutes walk or one tram ride, and cafes and restaurants galore, this Milchhof is definitely a des res.  The front door lock is a problem though.  During the night there was a big crashing sound.  It might have been the wind that was so fierce that it picked up chairs and a wooden bar counter in the side yard smashing them down into a heap.  Then again it could have been someone trying to get in, or out, because the next day the front door could not be opened.  I was standing there facing up to this just as my friend of a friend in London was arriving on his bicycle.  At that moment, as it seems to happen here, a solution appeared in the large masterful German form of the sculptor Mark.  Just back from his month away, about to form a band in his ground floor studio he quickly took charge.  I was to use the basement entrance, where Marcus, another sculptor, had a studio, down with the central heating plant.  So that solved, we went to a café and talked about being in Berlin in English.  Bliss.  Not only is he a painter, and working as an assistant to a German artist, but also he is a bicycle tour guide to pay his way in Berlin.  Energetic and friendly, being English he can easily explain details that have been puzzling me.  It is a propitious new phase with the artists returning to their studios and my work starting to get in the groove.


13/01/2007             Days pass quickly with so many choices of things to accomplish and things to explore.  Some times there is so much to do in the studio that I don’t get out at all, yet other times I’m out so much at museums and looking around, that I can’t get done what I’d planned.  The advantage of a computer is that you give it a task and it does it full-stop, (or crashes), but humans, and I like to think, especially artists, go off on tangents because so many possibilities lie at each stage.  That way madness lies, one might say, but using some sort of discipline, interesting possibilities creep in.  Working steadily on a drawing, I found myself dancing around the studio.  It must be the weather, so bright and mild now that is making me less hermit-like and ready to make some contacts.  Having emailed an artist who lives in Berlin, friend of a friend in London, and arranged to meet for a coffee tomorrow afternoon, I’m looking forward to an insider’s viewpoint. 


12/01/2007             Since I’ve been reading the early short stories of Thomas Mann with their formal obsessed moods, I look at fellow passengers on the U-Bahn and imagine similar formalities and serious episodes in their lives.   They easily look as if they’ve stepped out of a German novel or some film, as I travel to the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz to see ‘The Queen’.  Perhaps it is because I’m out of the country, but I find the film very moving.   Hot chocolate being one of my favourite drinks, I’m delighted to find that the cinema version is to bring over a frothy cup of hot milk with, on the side, a thick slab of chocolate that is then stirred in and melts into the hot milk.  My choice is Classic Bitter with the little bit left on the spoon at the end.


11/01/2007            A great bright dry day. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in drawing.  That's the way I like to work, before breakfast, before getting dressed, before getting up in a way, so that the night's thoughts are still with me.  Because of the deadline for the cleaner, I did stop and shower just before ten, but it breaks the rhythm.  Coming back, the mood is more stepped back.  Looking critically at what I've done makes me rip up a couple of sheets and wreck another by overcorrecting.  At least I finally have the feeling that I might be starting to work properly.  Outside influences are a funny thing because it is only afterwards that one sees what they are.  Working all day like that was great, but I popped a toffee in my mouth about five pm and you guessed it.  With the very first chew I lost a filling. Aaaargh.  What a nuisance.  What do I do now?  My first instinct is to do nothing and carry on until I get back to London even though that is ten weeks away.  I'll have to see how bad it gets.  It may be slightly throbbing already or is that my hypochondria?   After that I went out and bought some more pencils at the art shop.  Since I haven't spoken to anyone for so long that I found I'd lost my voice and just a tiny croak came out.  Well I'm going to the dogs I must say.  Getting on the M1 tram to go to the organic shop, blow me down but a car ran into the tram and we all had to get out and walk.  As far as could be discerned, no one was much hurt but the front of the car was smashed in and would have to be towed away.  That is so weird because the roads are very quiet with never much traffic on them and the trams run on fixed rails. Bicycles, cars, people, everything has to give way.  They are implacable and have to be obeyed.  Evidently being run over by a tram killed Shinkel the genius architect.  Not paying attention, I guess, like the driver tonight.  Boiled potatoes, cheese, a banana for supper for me, nothing chewy.


10/01/2007          Being alone like this brings me to thoughts of solitary life.  Spare me please the apparition of Sister Wendy Beckett, nun artist looming.  Actually nodding my head up and down looking out the window at the distortions in the glass is absorbing, as a metaphor at how one looks at a culture from the outside.  Patterns appear but are they really there?


09/01/2007             Now that people have returned from their family visits, and the buildings are lit up around here after dark, it is much less forbidding coming back at night.  I feel much more at home now, not noticing every tiny thing.  Which may be a pity in its’ way, but much less fatiguing.  The big thing is that I have bought a cheap mobile phone, with the help of a kind girl at the British Council who wrote out a comprehensive letter in correct German stating my requirements: no contract, pre-paid card, cheap.  Up till now I hesitated to contact anyone because if they rang me it would be hugely expensive for them on my UK phone.  This will make contact much simpler.  I think I may go out and take lots of photographs for a whole day, just to see what comes out of that.


08/01/2007             Returning to the Hamburger Hof Museum, I enjoyed eating the sweets from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres installations, (until I got a stomach ache), but even more agreeable was being able to carry away the ‘Please take one’ sheets of paper as they will be great for just messing about drawings.  In the Joseph Beuys galleries, the huge blocks of fat, old machinery, felted violin and other autobiographical objects in glass cases sit dumbly without the strutting egoist himself saying how important they are.  Warhol undoubtedly was just as big an egoist, ( as probably every artist is, what moi? saying ‘Look at me, look at me’.  Outsider mental patients excluded.), but his “Oh I don’t know.  Gee whiz.” stance is much more agreeable and contemporarily relevant.  A Damian Hirst Glass case of shelved pharmaceuticals is in the collection.  Titled ‘Void’, I at first thought must be sleeping capsules, but looking closer I saw there were a lot of haemmaroid suppositories, and the capsules must be laxatives.  So the work isn’t shit but it produces…  Funny.


Descending again into the dark of ‘The Art of Projection’ made me aware of how there is this split or war between projected works using light, and art using matter.  With the light works we are paradoxically forced and funnelled into blackness, separated from the world by insulating curtains and corridors.  Like wraiths in an underworld one then stumbles, until the eyes become accustomed, against other spectators until one then goes on to the next projection.  Actually this work in its way, is looked at like paintings or sculpture, in the way that we are accustomed to look at art.  It's Art innit?   Unlike cinema which we also watch in the dark, we look for as long or as briefly as we want, and then walk on.  The difference, is that without a beginning or an end that one would wait for as in cinema, and especially because there are no seats or not more than a token cushion or a wall to lean against, one moves on having witnessed a fragment only, unlike painting or sculpture where the whole thing is there at once.  Of course a fragment does carry the integrity of the whole but it is a little like cutting out one of Cezanne’s apples, there is not the satisfaction of an entity.  That is part of the medium’s withholding, (sadism I want to say), and its unique expression.  Some works are too long like Douglas Gordon’s Twenty-four Hour Pyscho’, or Matthew Barney’s ‘Crewmaster’ series, but mostly there is unstructured ambiguity or repetition, without narrative.  Marcel Broodthaler’s ‘One Second of Eternity’, a perfect if extreme example with, as I now discover, simply his signature initials O. M. flashing.   Certainly this art of projection does reflect a lot that our collective lives have morphed into, being bound to our laptops day and night.  In the museum shop I buy a Robert Crumb postcard of a trailer trashy lout at a computer: ‘How did I ever live without this thing’.


07/01/2007             One thing I love is flea markets and two are within a couple of blocks from the Milchhof.  Heaven.  Today I scoured both to find a bowl that would do as both a mixing bowl and for fruit.  There were lots of bowls, but it is surprising how picky I become about details such as decoration or exact rim size. There was one perfect, plain white, and porcelain bowl  but when asked the price, it was thirty euros.  Shock.  It turns out that it is an original thirties bowl.  Just for the studio it is far too expensive.  Now I feel a longing for that bowl, of course.  That’s not too much.  I could take it home and so on.  It is up to fate now if the bowl will be there again next Sunday.


Going around Berlin sightseeing, I admire the efficiency of the transportation system.  Working round the clock, twenty-four hours every day even Christmas, the longest I’ve ever waited so far for underground, bus or tram was nine minutes.  Spectral memories of shivering, waiting endlessly for the 52 at Notting Hill Gate rise up.  As well as this wonderful efficiency, again the estimable civic rule observing correctness of the Germans plays a part.  For everyone is responsible for his or her own payment of fares.  One buys a ticket either on the bus or tram, or on the platform of the S or U Bahn, or from a tobacconists, and if for a single journey, stamps it in the machine.  Most people buy a weekly or monthly or longer ticket and this is stamped only when it commences.  From then on, with that ticket in one’s pocket, one strolls on and off any tram, U-Bahn etc at will, never showing one’s ticket at all. There are no gates on or off to pass, nobody asks to see a ticket.  Evidently there are scores of plainclothes inspectors who can appear at any time with severe on the spot fines and presumably even severer measures if not paid instantly, but it is up to everyone to regulate their own ticket payment and use.  Fantastic.  Wouldn’t that solve those endless jams at ticket barriers in London?  But how many wouldn’t pay there?  Just a suggestion to at least do away with barrier vaulting. 


06/01/2007          The episodic nature of time and experience has been influenced by the email phenomena. I get vast amounts of junk emails. Every day there are between twenty-five and thirty-five emails in the Bulk folder.  I delete them all without looking, but the ones that irritate me are the ones that slip through and I think well maybe that might be from someone I know.  Then immediately delete it because no, it’s not.  Today I finally have got going and worked steadily in the studio.  At the Internet café in the evening, I catch up on some emails and shop at the organic supermarket across the road.  Overcome by email ephemera, I try to draw something that at least is a real mark and not just restlessness.  It is the steely seriousness of the German mind that I’m hitting up against.


Outrageous as some of their clothing and sex life may be, and wonderfully nice they are individually, Germans seem to be quite rule orientated.  At completely empty crossroads people gather waiting for the green man signal.  When I just look and then cross anyway without waiting, sometimes someone will shout at me or at least point to the lights.  And yet people held lit rockets in their hands on New Year’s Eve.  Maybe there is no rule against that.  At the Deutsches Historische Museum when we were watching film documentation of Hitler and his sea of troops, the Architect had taken off his coat and put it over his arm.  Immediately a guard came over and ordered him to either put the coat back on or leave and put the coat in the garderobe.  It gave a very unsettling feeling to be so peremptorily disciplined.  It could almost have been orchestrated to make the experience more authentic.  At the Hamburger Hof Museum for 21st Century art, the guards were friendly, helpful, smiling, miles different  Good-humoured tolerance ruled.  Do the guards take on the flavour of the exhibitions I wonder? 


05/01/2007          Hours drift away while I read about Berlin and shuffle all the brochures and listings.  Planning to go out means studying the map and then the transportation system map.  This takes a lot of time, but once I actually do get out at least I know where I’m going.  Social guilt means I feel I should get up earlier in the mornings, even though I stay up late reading, writing, dithering.  Maybe I will get organized soon.  I’ve put up some paper on the walls. 


04/01/2007          A great day at the Hamburger Hof Museum of  21st Century Art with its’ monumental Anselm Keifer installations, huge Richard Long Slate Circle and such a large exhibition of ‘Beyond Cinema: The Art of Projection’, that I have to go back to see the Felix Gonzales-Torres and Beuys that I missed.  Warhol’s ‘Knives’, 1981-82 looks terrific as does his ‘Sickle and Hammer’.  Upstairs, coupled with a Marcel Broodthaler exhibition of ‘Le Corbeau et Le Renard’, a series by Arnold Dreyblatt, ‘Ephemeral Epygrahica’, digital papyrus translations printed in transparent layers over each other, so that they appear and disappear, from concept to execution are remarkable.  There was a projector not turned on in a darkened cubicle, the title label said Marcel Broodthaler ‘One Second of Eternity’, and the length of time said 01 second.  Now was that projector ever turned on? How would we know?  Take a photograph of it? 


03/01/2007          Departure of the Architect.

Finally, Boesner Art Supplier is open, but you know what?  They don’t take credit cards.


02/01/2007          Walking over to the large art supply shop, thirty minutes away, we found it was shut for stocktaking, and walked back.  In the evening we went to the Deutsche Oper for the Dornröschen Ballet and had dinner there.  Not being able to understand what any of the dishes were we sort of got a general idea from “like a sunflower”, and mimed gestures, turned out to be the most delicious Jerusalem Artichoke soup, very special, and a roulade of salmon and sole.  The Dornröschen turned out to be ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and was exceedingly pretty.  And the key worked at the Milchhof.


01/01/2007   In the morning the streets and footpaths are littered with the remains of spent rockets, crackers, wine bottles, broken glass everywhere.  Picking our way over the mess we walk in the eye watering wind around these Prenzlauer Berg streets where there are a lot of commercial galleries, all shut for another fortnight.  Many of the buildings show the damage from the Battle of Berlin, and there are a lot of empty spaces and unreconstructed buildings just left.  Broken Berlin is still shattered, especially on this eastern side that didn’t have the pouring in of American money.  Imbedded into the footpaths are brass tablets as memorials for the Jewish people who had lived in those buildings before Auschwitz.   A very large ruined complex of buildings with a big archway used to be a famous artist’s squat but now will become commercial.


Fortunately the main State museums are open and we make our way to the Altes Museum where the Egyptian collection is, and the Alte Nationalgalerie, which is 19th century art.  Confusing isn’t it?  Alte means old.  In the forecourt of the Altes museum is a large neon sign saying “All Art Was Contemporary When Created”, inside there is the Head of Nefertiti 1350 BC, and beautiful Egyptian granite carvings from 2000 BC and older.  Even more pleasurably for me are the paintings by Manet, Monet, a serene aquamarine sea by Dufy and the powerful horizontal division of Gustave Courbet’s, ‘The Wave’ 1870, at the Alte Nationalgalerie.  On the sweeping staircase is Max Klinger’s ‘Amphitrite’ 1895-99, that is an intriguingly erotic, ironic taking on classical antiquity.


Well all that pleasure plus dinner was forgotten when arriving back at the dark empty Milchhof, the key wouldn’t turn in the jammed lock.  Oh no, not again.  Nothing would budge it.  Finding a hotel that would take a credit card loomed.  After some twenty desperate minutes, a bicycle came wavering down the path towards us.  How come this artist with a studio in the basement turned up just then at around midnight I don’t know as he didn’t speak English but the word Kaput, and the waving of my key was clear enough.  Threading the way through the basement heating system, he let us in from inside.  What a relief to get in.


31/12/2006   Bam. Whistle. Bang.  What is that?  At 10 am. the New Year’s Eve fireworks have begun and continue so all day, gaining pace until the frenzied crescendo at midnight, and sporadically afterwards all night.  Fireworks here are celebrated all over the place.  There is none of that safety worry that grips others.  Here dads and sons, or groups of friends enjoy the whack of explosion everywhere.   Some on the footpaths, placed on the ground, or thrown onto the road, or even rockets held in their hands.  That is something I haven’t seen before.  


When I lived in New Zealand, I had a neighbour with three daughters.  One day, this recent widow intrepidly climbed up onto the roof to try to fix a leaking tile.  She fell off onto her head, and from then on lived in an institution, with the eldest daughter Fiona, bringing up the other two girls.  They used to bemoan that they would never be married now, saying that in New Zealand men only marry girls that are rich.  Not entirely true I’m sure, but true enough everywhere, viz Jane Austen for the reverse.  When the mother came for weekend visits, she looked the same, but it was as if her head was an egg, which unlike Humpty Dumpty’s, the shell remained unbroken but the insides were scrambled.  She used to try to find things that weren’t there and ask about her ‘area’.


Still not quite habituated to this routine of living out of a studio and a suitcase with hygienic facilities at a distance, I keep forgetting where I’ve put things.  Today it happened, coming out of my hot shower I realized that the towel was back in the studio across the public, unheated corridor.   That’s when I thought of that brave New Zealand widow: In my case, same on the outside, but very stupid inside.  But hey, for a few years when I was a child, we lived on a farm in Canada with the outhouse some distance away and a pump for the well outside the kitchen door.  And that was high snow to get through.


30/12/2006    A return to the DHM, Deutsches Historische Museum for the less anguishing upper floors.  Bizarrely, the war shots can make great post cards.  It must be that the real documentation is too raw, especially film.  Life packs an unbearable punch while art sublimates, taking the intensity and like alchemy, makes life strongly interesting rather than a complete devastation.  It is not hiding one’s head in sand; it is enabling us to go on.  ‘Art makes Life more interesting than Art’, a compensation for our mortality. 


The museum is full of historic fascination, Dührer, Ingres, Rubens, are only a part of it.  Wandering immersed in German invention and history, four hours passed so quickly that it amazed me, (not known for my patience).


29-12-2006    At last the New National Gallery was open after Christmas.  Built in 1968 it is Mies van der Rohe’s last built building – a masterpiece.  O. M. Ungers Cosmos of Architecture is the featured exhibition and includes his own collection of artworks.  A knockout Ellsworth Kelly painting, Black Green 1980, Donald Judd’s cadmium red, Half Solid Tube Piece 1990, in that show plus other works in the museum’s collection, make me feel very happy. 


2006-12-28   It’s snowing.  Soft big fabulous drifting snow is coming down heavily.  A wondrous visual enhancement of the scenery, and a good day to laze about keeping dry and warm.  Nevertheless, the Architect has braved the falling snow, trudging without falling over, to get materials for shelves to improve the kitchen space.  I bought some good sheets of paper, rulers, and five black Faber Castell Broadpens.  Later on it is the opera at the grand Staatsoper Unter den Linden.  What a grand privileged ambience.


2006-12-27   A weird sort of misty day that took us to the zoo on both the U-Bahn, (underground) and S-Bahn, (overground).  The Berlin Zoo is one of the world’s largest and most important zoos, full of endangered species.  Landscaped like a park, it is unexpectedly surreal to see vivid orange flamingos, armoured rhinoceros, zebras and even giant pandas out in the frosty air.  The animals and birds look quite at home outside.  Inside in heated cages, many seem in hibernation, except the unceasingly active monkeys.  The thought of how unnatural it was to keep these beasts in cages, like criminals serving a prison sentence and being gawped at, kept impinging.  Rationally I respect and admire the valuable research, education and instilling of awe that zoos do, and know that the animals here would never survive if released in the wild, yet it strikes me that the wondrous giraffes and leopards have too little to do in the inside cages except pace, aware of the peering crowd.  Do you think they are even a particle as interested in seeing us as we are of sensuous, sinewy them?  It seemed more upbeat for the frogs, lizards, snakes and sharks.  Maybe it's because I don’t empathise with the cold-blooded creatures.


Some shops have opened and a few museums.  Going to the DHM, Deutsches Historische Museum, the 20th century is shown on the ground floor and what a terrible century that was in spite of the achievements.  Even though the design of all the accoutrements from posters to cars, clothing, kitchens, furniture, et al, is great, I began to feel exceedingly bad and depressed about humanity, because of the documentation of Hitler and the wars.  So I couldn’t go on upstairs in the museum to the interesting earlier century and importantly the paintings, not today it is too much to take everything in.  I fled.   


2006-12-26   Many places are closed but not the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz.  Full of prestige trophy architecture, corporate headquarters, space age posturing, a Christmas Market, an artificial hill to toboggan down in a tyre, and the Sony cinema with eight English language films, all sort of family orientated pap at the moment. 

Instead we had a late lunch at the well-known Café Einstein, roast goose, red cabbage, and apfelstrudel.  Coming back we got lost on the U-Bahn because of not understanding the announcements about repair works.


2006-12-25   People were out walking in the park at the end of this street, Schwedter Strasse.  The park is a hill or mound that was formed between 1945 and 1948 of the buildings and bones left from the destruction of the war.  People cleared the rubble by pushing wheelbarrows by hand, now it is a peaceful walking place.  It runs along the un-built space still left by the Dead Zone where the Wall used to be. 


Everything was shut and quiet, except the churches.  The churches last night were not only full, but also bursting.  We went to the main Domkirche near Alexanderplatz, to wait for a chance to get into the choral service.  A great shoving, elbowing viciously, not at all blessedly passive, crowd using force whenever the door, (singular), creaked open to let in only fifteen suppliants at a time.  Two well-dressed couples almost came to blows about unfair wriggling ahead.  It became so heated and aggressive that in the end the wife of one and the husband of the other dragged them away and they both stormed off shouting.  The unbeatific effect of this on peace of mind is instantly dispelled once finally entering the vast baroque space filled with people, candles, gigantic tree, choir, and organ music.  It has been worth braving the scrum outside to hear the carols sung in their original German.  After the poignancy of Stille Nacht Heilage Nacht, we leave quietly to walk up the Unter den Linden with the linden trees outlined in white fluorescence.  At the square outside revered Humboldt University, next to a lit rink with skaters whizzing round, we stare down at the empty library shelves reminder of this place where the Burning of the Books took place.  Beauty and violent memories.


2006-12-24       Since it is the first real day, little things loom large which in a day or two will not even register.  So, language, money, bags and doors.  Firstly is the hugely dominating, predominant language.  No it’s not English; it’s German.  Surprise.   In London it is blithely said, sometimes by people who may even have visited, “everyone in Berlin now speaks English.”  This passes their lips as fact.  Which it is not.  Although many Berliners may speak some English, that is many more than Londoners knowing any German at all; many, many more do not, in the supermarkets, ordinary shops, nor even in quite large stores, not even in this internet cafe.  Steps back in amazement.  What! is this really a foreign country? Yes.

All the labelling of food and other products is in German only.

Instructions everywhere are in German only, which means the Transportation, Laundromat, email, Microsoft Word, you name it, and it’s in German. 

Cash is King.  Shops on the whole do not take credit cards.  Neither do museums, nor booking agencies, cafes, and many restaurants.  Nor does the really huge art supply shop Boesner.  Gulp.  Going to buy food take cash.  And bags.

Stores don’t give you bags.  If they have bags available, they charge for them.  Even purchasing a lot of stuff, you are expected to have something in which to take it away.  Everyone else had satchels, carriers and packed away their goods.  I stood there like a dope.  After being caught out all day, I caught on. 

All doors open out.  This probably is to keep out the weather.  A small point perhaps but incredibly insistent, especially since a lot of doors both inside and out are very heavy.

The Berliners themselves are remarkably helpful, approachable, and friendly, and soon I hope I will get to know what their words mean.


Manfred, the wonderfully charming Arts Director, arrived bringing light to the situation, literally.  “I bring you light,” he said, wheeling in a strong halogen light.  Slender, freckled, fair-haired under his brown felt hat, unflappable and amusing he quickly dispatched my list of requests. A translated modus operandi between the cleaner and myself, (if I shower before 10 am I won’t be interrupted.  “Get up early!” in response to my “ but I work late, sleep-in late” screech), a large mirror put into the shower room and another in the living space, a coat rack fixed to the wall at the front door, and another up on the sleeping platform an electric kettle, (water-cooker) appeared, extra sockets extension, two more long painting tables, a long bench, chairs for the studio plus a wicker chair with a back, for wondering what to do/staring into space. The place was ready to go.  Then off he went, as had already almost all the artists of the Milchhof, to visit family over the Christmas New Year fortnight period.


Without people, television, radio, newspapers, and galleries shut a lot of that time, ditto museums, ditto sporadically the shops, it could be challenging.  On the other hand it could be a perfect interval to drift.   For me, I had the visit of the Architect to soften and enjoy the being in Berlin at this time experience.  Rushing to and fro I bought an inflatable mattress and pump, plastic hand-laundry, dish-washing basins, bucket, stronger light-bulbs for the kitchen, more hangers, an extra pillow, four Mickey Mouse glasses, two more cups coffee filters and lots of food.  All ready to be bunkered in.


2006-12-23   Like most journeys this one began with a series of agitations.  The suitcases had to be sat on to be fastened in the comic tradition.  Dense fog had descended on Heathrow cancelling and delaying flights.  Arriving at the Milchhof in the late afternoon pitch-blackness of winter, I found the building locked and unlit.  There was a bell that rang in the emptiness unanswered.  Although no doubt not the end of the world, my terminally heavy suitcases were part of the joke.  What to do and where?  After about a half hour of bleak bereft, fruitless ringing of the bell - a strange country can bring on such extremes of feelings of abandonment, all of a sudden someone was coming down the stairs and out the door.  Very surprised to see me he was an artist just there by chance, and not the artistic director I expected.  Then a little note was spied on the door that had been too dark to see, or certainly read before.  It said the keys were in the office on the second floor.  Since I had neither a key to the front door nor the auxiliary keypad combination I would have been there a long time.  After some phone calls the keys were obtained, studio rooms shown and the handy supermarket pointed out.  On the painting table a tableau was set out of red poinsettias, red candle, chocolate Father Christmas and a bottle of bubbly Sekt.  A welcome gesture to what had been a rather daunting beginning.


The next day consisted of unpacking the lumps of dead weight that were my suitcases and setting things up.  Why had I brought six staplers, none of which worked on these concrete walls, seven pairs of scissors for each kind of tapes I use and no tapes, seventeen paintbrushes, books by the proverbial ton, and eight sets of thermal leggings and vests?  Surely this was panic packing.  What happened to my light-hearted approach of a small satchel for one year in the East containing only one set of knickers, shirt and skirt for ‘good’?  My mitigation is that I am to be here for three months working in freezing winter whilst the other was an exploring journey in hot climates.  Oh yes.


Well the above and more had to find places to be put, the equivalent of a dog peeing everywhere to stake out his territory.  The pissing for me, was all done out of my double doors, down the unheated hall to the communal loos.  All very clean and proper, though not quite convenient at night.  Showering is also across the hall in the storeroom for the cleaner’s equipment but has hot water unlike the kitchen.  This resulted in my being walked in on, twice, while hot showering away, because of incomprehension of language.  Another comedy of errors.


2006-12-22    A mirror has been brought for me to hang in the kitchen living part.  I am amazed at the difference it makes to reaffirm my sense of self.  Now I see that it wasn’t only the inability to pay for a model that prompted all those self-portraits.  I am beginning to settle in.

2006-12-21   Sitting in the long large cement floored white walled studio, I contemplate its emptiness. One of the double glazed windows has flaws so that if I nod my head, the straight red line of the flat roof opposite goes into a wave and then disappears.  This occupies me for quite awhile.


2006-12-20    First impression of the residency: Kafkaesque. It appears as an institution, possibly a police headquarters or seminary for lay priests. Silent corridors, steel doors, absorbed figures pass by, some speaking German. Then the typical clues of paint splatters, lumps of carved wood, dispel the heaviness. The silent figures smile, laugh, and are most engagingly earnest in their desire to smooth my initial settling in