Berlin, August 2013
It’s not until I hear her voice that I know I’m back.
There are signs, of course: the spire of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz, the stalls selling enormous pretzels, and the musty, mechanical smell of the U-Bahn. I acknowledge them with a nod like the old friends they are, and head down into the bowels of Berlin with my train ticket in hand.
I know she’s down here. The train snakes alongside the platform as I hear her silky voice come to life: Einsteigen bitte. I’m smiling like a lunatic as I haul my suitcase into the carriage and she purrs her request: Zurückbleiben bitte. Please stay back.
This is my ninth visit to Berlin, and the voice of the underground train system welcomes me like a hug.
I have a half hour ride to my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg with its balcony where I will sit, swill warm rosé from tiny bottles, and write. This journey has its own ritual, and I rarely deviate from it: my head against a train window, I watch Berlin slide by and listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
A hooked bone rising from my food
All things either good or ungood.
The Tender Prey album scared me when it came out. I was nearing the end of high school and had jumped from ‘80s pop into hardcore punk with my army boots laced up tight. But on this Bad Seeds album, recorded in Berlin, the menace was of a different kind entirely. Dark and seductive, it caught me by my sixteen-year-old throat and would not let go.
Themes of alienation and anger are pure gold to a teenager, and I was no exception. I carried in one pocket a list of homeless shelters in St Kilda, and in the other a list of Parisian cafes frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I was getting the hell out of my tidy little suburban life, no matter how I did it.
Escape came in the form of a year-long language exchange in Europe, my friends lining Tullamarine Airport in their tattered TISM t-shirts to wave me off. In Brussels I learned to smoke Gauloise cigarettes, swear in Flemish and French, and walk through snow on the cobblestones without slipping.
And I remember sitting around a TV set with my host parents, clutching their hands in awe as people took sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall.
I wanted in. I stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked to Germany to join in the euphoria, Nick Cave in my Walkman. It was the beginning of a love affair with Deutschland and her beautiful language, one that would propel me towards a linguistic degree and a life lived in pursuit of words and their wonder.
At the time, however, all I knew was that I loved Europe; fiercely, with all the obsession of an angst-filled teen. And then my year – and my visa – ended, and I was returned to Melbourne, back to everything I’d tried so damn hard to outrun.
A blackened tooth, a scarlet fog.
The walls are bad, black, bottom kind.
They are the sick breath at my hind
My welcome home present from my friends was a ticket to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in concert. I grabbed it with both hands. I stood in the mosh pit with bodies surging around me, staring wild- eyed as Nick bellowed. His arms flung open, roaring the lyrics to The Mercy Seat, he was demonic and dynamic, and as he sang I began to see sparks of light shoot from his outstretched finger tips into the crowd. I just had time to think ‘God damn, this man is a performer’ before my eyes rolled back in my head, my legs gave way and I dropped to the floor. My friends and I were somewhat disappointed when the doctor diagnosed the flu and jet lag; we were hoping I’d been possessed at a Nick Cave concert, but alas, it wasn’t to be.
The train slides into Eberswalder Strasse station. I have to stop myself from laughing out loud at the joy of it all. I want to pinch the passenger next to me and whisper ‘I knew I’d be back!’ The cracked yellow U-Bahn tiles have never looked lovelier, and I decide to stop at the Turkish grocer on the corner of Pappellalle to buy some goat’s cheese and wine.
I’m still listening to Nick Cave but I slip one ear piece out just long enough to hear the voice of the U-Bahn purr ‘Have a nice day.’ I drag my suitcase along the platform, and home.
© Rijn Collins.