Monday, February 4, 2013

Voices of the City

That evening I had taken the Straßenbahn from Memhard Straße to visit R and N at S-Prenzlauer Allee. Since it was peak hour, I was standing by the door, and suddenly halfway through, I realised that I hadn't heard the sound of honking car-horns for days. The only sound that prevailed inside the Straßenbahn was the slow rumble of the wheels on the tracks, interrupted only by very soft occasional conversation in foreign tongues.

I began recollecting instances of sounds and voices on the streets of Berlin, but all I could remember was the soft rumble of engines. In the S-Bahn, one quickly gets used to the rhythmic beep of opening and closing of doors at stations, and the announcement of the station names -- fellow-commuters just don't talk. In the beginning, every time my phone would loudly play 'Careless Whispers', I would quickly snatch it out of my pocket and very self-consciously speak to my family in Bengali. Now that I think about it, the stations, especially the busier ones like Zoologischer Garten, Hauptbahnhof, and Friedrichstraße, carry a Geräusch of business, but only when you stand back to distill the essences of the noise, do you realise that it's only the sound of relieved boots on concrete after having slipped on snow, and the stamp of the ticket machine from the repeatedly entwerfen-ed tickets. Sometimes there are exceptions: during a problem in the S-Bahn route to Charlottenburg -- something very commonplace in Berlin -- I was waiting for a long time at Hackescher Markt. I then took the first train to Friedrichstraße, and barely having procured a seat beside the window, I heard the announcement of the driver, explaining the Störung, excusing himself and Deutsche Bahn for it, and hoping that we'll make it to our destination soon. This brought out a general response of laughter among the fellow-commuters, and for half a minute, total strangers looked at each other and laughed at certain expressions of the hapless driver.

My neighbourhood at Sybelstraße, Charlottenburg, is also quiet, with the occasional Hallos and Guten Tags when one looks squarely at someone at the street. As I would get dressed for class every day, I would suddenly hear the low roar of school children playing during a break. I'd then rush to the windows to look for traces of excited children, but I would bitterly remind myself that the view of the brick-red Deutsch-Polish school beside my building was hindered by the windowless wall of my bedroom. And almost as suddenly as it had begun, the soft hum of happy children would fade away before I even noticed.

And just as I was about to dismiss Berlin as the city of silence, occassionally interrupted only by the cawing of furry ravens, did I discover the saxophonist at Alexanderplatz. N and I were waiting in front of the S-Bahnhof, waiting for R to come. Suddenly I heard notes of 'Auld lang Syne' immediately behind me. I turned and my exclaim of surprise and joy were met with smiling pragmatism from N, who assured me that the saxophonist had played there all summer and throughout the duration of the Christmas market. It was rather cold that night, with temperature dipping below -6, and the saxophonist was so well-wrapped, that I couldn't make out his face. By the time R came, he was playing 'Speak Softly Love', and with relief we abandoned the cold for the warm interiors of the S-bahn, not before feeling guilty for the poor musician out in the cold, belting out beautiful notes of old favourites.

The next weekend, R and I met there again, and as we were crossing the road to take the U-5 to Kreuzberg, he was playing the love theme from Godfather again; and thus did he play it again a week later when I was coming out from Galleria to take the M2 to S Prenzlauer Allee. It is for his defiance to play the same song over and over again, that the saxophonist of Alexanderplatz wins over the two friendly trumpet players at Hackescher Markt, and Gianni's resounding voice while cooking at his little restaurant at Charlottenburg -- as the defining voice of the city.

For Berlin -- with its Philharmoniker, where Lang Lang played last week; with its Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper (conducting its shows in Schiller Theater because of renovation work in its own premises); its Konzerthaus; hundreds of Schaubühnes; little restaurants magically opening up to chamber theatres in hidden, inner rooms; night clubs in the underground, whose neon lights attract attention when you're walking alone, slowly on a late Friday night; with Dussmann, the Kulturkaufhaus and its free Kostprobes, where the queues go out into Friedrichstraße, and where we sit on the floor with friends, or peep through book shelves to catch a glimpse of the celebrity performing that evening; its numerous church choirs and stages playing religious and classical music -- has several voices clamouring to come out and be heard. Some are musical, some not much, roughened by the Berliner German accent, and manifested in the quiet eyes of elderly men sitting alone in bars and looking steadfastly at you. Then will pay for their beer soon, and climb to their flats above, where they had come as students after the war, and finding big houses empty, had immediately occupied them. They had filled the empty apartments with low moans of love, conversations, and eventually family; while the prostitutes on the street outside, whom they could never really afford, tried to get by the winter with silken voices to capture the attention of the new British man walking down the street.

I really want to know what O. Henry would have made of Berlin -- the city of Huguenots, saying "Ick weiss, c'est fait"; or the clamour of all kinds of music playing together; or the soft conversations over the phone with the loved one while travelling alone in public transport; or the 'tap-tap' emanating from the traffic signal beside you while you wait to cross the road; or the sad notes of the violin played by the propreitor of the Mediterranean Feinkost in his empty, dark shop late at night; or just the young man at the S-Bahnhof asking you, "Kann ich Ihnen helfen?" and carrying the heavy suitcase through the stairs, and just nodding at you before hurrying to catch the train.

Something tells me, it could be the last one.

1 comment:

  1. You made me yearn for a year in Berlin. I've only visited the city twice, and each visit made me wish I had more time.

    A wonderful evocation of the voices of the city - thank you. (I know you are suspicious of 'gratitude', but you'll make an exception this time, won't you?)

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