Of all the Places in the City

Aired on: BBC World Service, The Cultural FrontlineNov. 14, 2015


Unlike most writers I know, I do not keep a diary, and I rarely take notes.  I like to commit things to my imperfect memory and, in my writing, use only what I retain. My memory is a sieve, it separates the small, inconsequential particles of everyday experience from what I find worthwhile to remember. Which is the reason why I can work with the bare minimum of equipment. I use pen and paper, sometimes a laptop. I don´t even need a dictionary, because German has ways to form, out of a stock of a few hundred simplex words, compounds that mean exactly what I want them to mean. The language is beautiful in that way.


So it would seem that I would be happy working at the kitchen table or in my favorite café. The kitchen table, however, is occupied by my wife, a writer who takes copious notes. The café would be great, because writing is a lonely process, and I like to be among others when I work. Why not enjoy the company of a few people, neighbors and casual acquaintances? Why not see some friendly faces when I look up from the screen?


But the tables at the Café Oro Nero are small and shaky, and the place is filled with the hiss of the espresso maker, the roar of a juice press and the laughter of children. Most importantly, it is filled with language – language that isn´t my own: the chatter, in italianate German, of the café´s friendly staff, the rustling of newspapers, the business plan of a young cultural entrepeneur badgering a potential investor, the hushed conversation of a couple, the uproarious laughter of the jazz drummer who is a regular. There is no room here for my own words, for the quiet conversation I like to carry on with myself.


What I need is a place that is quiet yet bustling, a film set full of extras, with only a single speaking role, a room filled with warm, silently beating hearts. I need to be alone in a sea of humanity.


When I did my doctorate work in Berkeley, California, I would write in a place we called the cookie room. It was a large library hall with long, massive tables, and sofas arranged around a huge, defunct fireplace. Its official name was, I believe, the graduate lounge. Prominently displayed on a central table was a tea buffet whose center piece was a large tray of fragrant, incredibly chewy quarter pounder chocolate chip cookies. The situation attracted not only dissertation writers like myself but also quite a few homeless people, dreadlocked post-hippies, self-mutilating borderliners, speed fiends and even the occasional nudist – the usual Berkeley crowd. All anyone wanted was silence, cookies, and a place to nurse one´s wounds or sleep off last night´s buzz. It was perfect. The Norwegian who was finishing a dissertation on Raymond Chandler would drop a quarter into the donation tin every time a non-enrolled occupant took a cookie, and my friend Noah, otherwise absorbed in German-Jewish modernism, would get up every fifteen minutes or so to give a careful, almost loving nudge to one of the snoring winos. I had my laptop and my cookies, I wore earplugs just to be on the safe side and finished my dissertation on construction grammar in record time.


Today, in Berlin, I like to write in the library of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (IAI), an institute devoted to the study of Latin-American and hispanic culture, language and society. The building is part of the Kulturforum designed in the nineteen-sixties by Hans Scharoun, which also includes the adjoining state library and the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It sits – a gem, hidden in plain view – across from Mies van der Rohe´s Neue Nationalgalerie and only a stone´s throw away from the former death strip.


The space itself is bright and airy, and the large-leaved hydroponic plants that line the windows give the library an almost tropical feel that – particularly in winter – contrasts nicely with the dreary gloom of the city.


Although I appreciate the fact that global culture and German history intersect at this place in a meaningful way and that the building itself is beautifully intricate, I choose to work here for entirely different reasons. Since I don´t speak Spanish – or Portuguese or Náhuatl – and I do not use the resources the library offers, I am alone with my language in a place full of serious-minded people, who all seem to be very friendly and gregarious, and respect the bubble of silence I need to do my work. When my gaze wanders, I see outside a group of Peruvians who smoke and talk and share a sandwich. A sharp-nosed Andean woman in bright designer clothes locks her single-speed bicycle, her mind is already at work on the paper she is scheduled to deliver next week. Inside, an aging hipster returns from the stacks with a book by Carlos Monsiváis, and further down along the window, a bearded Argentinian in a beige, pilling sweater flirts with a German student in a whisper full of rolling Rs.


Of all the places in the city, this is where I like to work. This is where I am sitting, looking at a bookshelf full of reference works for which I have no use. I have everything I need: my computer, my earplugs, my memories and my language. And in the lobby, in a locker for which I have borrowed a token from the friendly, Spanish-speaking staff, my cookies are waiting.


Gregor Hens