Berlin is my Paris

Ullstein Publishing House, Berlin 2002 

By: Carmen Francesca Banciu 

Translated from the German by: Elena Mancini 

I came to Berlin, the way people used to go to Paris. I came to measure myself against the world. 

It was a closed circle, out of which I broke. A circle that exploded history. And I was a part of this history. 

I came to Berlin after the fall of the wall. Everything had changed during this period. Not just I. All the world was anxious. Not all the world, but the whole world. It wasn’t obvious to everyone. One had to be able to comprehend it first. 

It seemed as though I had come to a place, where there are fixed rules, that one had to assume and internalize, if one wanted to survive. I didn’t come to survive. I came to measure my strength. And the first thing to happen to me was a breakdown. 

I came to Berlin without knowing that I wanted to stay. I didn’t know at the time that Berlin was my Paris. I didn’t know then yet that Berlin was on its way. I too was on my way. I came from a country on the edge of Europe. With a language that barely anyone knows. Or even recognizes. And as soon as I came here, I lost myself. I could no longer do the simplest things. I could have headaches and a stiff back. Everything else I had forgotten how to do. 

I was tired. So tired that I forgot was enjoyment was. And didn’t even notice it. I was tired. Friends asked me if there was anything they could do for me. Anything to cheer me up. Even a publisher from Austria asked me this. I thought about it long and hard and found no answer. 

I had forgotten what enjoyment was and became afraid that I wouldn’t be able to express the fact that I was forgetting. I began to fear that I could no longer do anything. And that everything that I could still do was meaningless. I admired cleaning women that could clean a window. Women that had the strength to do that and knew how it went. 

I had forgotten everything. My English. My Hungarian. Breathing. Sleeping. Speaking. Cooking. I went into the grocery store and came out dizzy. Before I had to make something out of whatever was there. A zucchini from the garden, an onion. A meal was supposed to come out of that. Every now and then we had milk. Once a month we even had oil and sugar. On national holidays there would also be flour. The art of improvisation was required. It was possible to compensate your hunger with freedom of the art of survival, in order not to lose your sense of self worth. Now, in Berlin, everything was suddenly different and I no longer know how to cook. And what you could cook. And if cooking even made any sense. 

I came to Berlin to discover that I had forgotten how to breathe. How to breathe and everything else. Breathing is the hardest. And it requires the most time in order to learn it again. And if one is unable to breathe, one is also unable to cook. And certainly unable to speak. To express oneself. And if one can’t express oneself, then one has come to Berlin in vain. And then not even Paris can help. 

It seemed as though I had arrived somewhere, where there are set rules. Rules that I didn’t know. As if I had to set everything that I had known up until then aside. And in spite of that, I came to Berlin, for the same reasons people used to go to Paris. But to Paris, people keep reminding me. And I’m no fool. And I know. And yet I seek in Paris , what many used to seek in Paris. 

Berlin isn’t Paris, I keep getting told. Berlin, they say, has no flair. And also no lightness. I look out of my window facing Leipziger Strasse onto the new roofs and onto the forest of cranes. I left Bucharest as it was becoming Europe’s largest abandoned construction site in order to find the greatest construction site here. 

Berlin is not yet Berlin. When I came here I didn’t know. I believed I was on solid ground here. I believed I was in a place where everyone knew things about which I had no idea. I believed, I had to completely reinvent myself. I didn’t dare to venture to the East. It smelled like Bucharest. Like simmering dumpsters that overflow. The familiar smell of fermenting waste paralyzed me. I could take no pleasure in it. I had protested against the dumpsters in my writing. Against the rats and against the degradation in Romania. And now I had to confront them here too. 

Berlin was not at all Berlin. I injure myself on the window panes and mirrors in the West. From the cleanliness, they stood dangerously like invisible walls in the room and deceived one’s view. I didn’t see them and believed it was my fault. I didn’t dare to leave any crumbs behind in a world without crumbs. And for the fact that there were any crumbs at all, I held myself responsible. 

A world without crumbs and one with simmering dumpsters are hard to reconcile with one another. It’s a not a challenge that can be resolved from one day to the next. It’s not just my challenge, it’s a historical challenge. One day I moved to Leipziger Strasse. In the East. Here too, Berlin was not yet Berlin. And I had to move ahead with myself.

It’s no easy challenge to be in Berlin. Berlin is a metaphor. An expression for the emerging present. For the future history. I live on Leipziger Strasse, in a high-rise above the Springerhaus Publishing House. And with a view of the synagogue. With a view of the cranes that a cloud the neighborhood like a forest. The dust from Potsdamer Platz rises too high for me. Day and night a piece of Berlin changes before my eyes. And I change with it. It’s not an easy challenge to be in Berlin. And no one can deprive themselves of it. One doesn’t live here without a purpose. And one doesn’t remain untouched here. I write my books at Checkpoint Charlie. In Cafè Adler. I sit at a table and like an eagle I look out toward the east and toward the west. Every day buses full of tourists drive through the city and stop in front of the Adler. These people don’t have the challenge of living in Berlin. They come every now and then to see if Berlin has already become Berlin. 

I sit at the table and write my books. I’m obliged to Berlin. This Berlin that is not yet Berlin. That it should one day become even through my presence. I’m obliged to myself. I discovered that here. 

I’m connected to Berlin through the challenges it sets for me. Through the freedom that it allows me, for learning how to breathe again and for expressing this learning into words. 

I am a part of Berlin. I’m still not yet I. I measure myself against myself and the world. I leave traces behind. They are also a part of Berlin. From the Berlin that is supposed to become Berlin. Berlin is not yet Berlin. It’s an incomplete place that cannot do without me. Berlin is my Paris.