“You want to be a writer? Schopenhauer said that you must not seek to be the most famous artist, you must just become the best that you can be. To draw the sound of flowers,” Mathéo says, clenching his fist passionately.
Then he leans back, howling in French at how good the steak is at Maredo, and asks for the bill in German.
I’ve just admitted that I once wanted to be a writer, but I’m now in Berlin for a library conference. When I arrived on Sunday evening, the hostel room was empty, fresh white sheets folded and tossed on five bunkbeds. I slipped into the room, closed the chilly window, opened the curtains. Made up a bed and shoved my suitcase under it. Slipped down into the lobby and out into the city.
Writing, George Orwell says, should be a pane of glass, yourself crystallized so that some part of the world can flow through. It’s more than just sharing your desires and hopes and fears; it’s about remaining engaged, but moving aside so that what is can be seen.
Or, as old Pastor Danny used to say it: the Holy Spirit is like water and people are like a garden hose. Everyone gets thirsty, and sometimes you can help others find a drink. But don’t dwell on yourself too much – “you get out in the hot sunshine, and no one wants a big drink of water that tastes like hose!”
Monday, I have a free day. I walk a meandering 8 hours, up Oranienburgerstrasse to the charity shops and empty yards and small public parks in Wedding, along the train-station overpass at Osloer strasse, then back down to Mitte through the prepster yoga and bio ice cream neighborhoods. I speak just enough German to confuse the man at the doner shop, and (regretfully) see a beautiful fox coat but don’t try it on.
When I get back to the room in the evening, a mostly naked blond man is there, in his underpants.
I turn away, but he greets me enthusiastically.
I look back at him. Mr. Underpants is still unclothed, but runs up to shake my hand.
“My name is Mathéo*!” he says, “And I am French. I’m here on holiday.”
“I’m here for a conference.” I say, still reserved. “I’m American. A librarian in Kazakhstan.”
“Really?” he howls in laughter at this, doubling over. “A librarian in Kazakhstan?”
“The border guards in America don’t believe me either,” I smile.
Mathéo puts on a pair of khakis, brushing his blond hair back and studying himself in the mirror. He goes out, but when he comes back three hours later I’m still reading a book. He eyes me for a moment.
“You’re in Berliiin,” he says. “Berlin is for partying, not for reading books in a hostel.” He points to the graffiti/party artwork on the walls.
I nod absently. (He does know I’m here for a… librarian conference, right?)
“Do you have ten minutes?” He says, grinning. “I have a story!”
I put away the book.
“…So I need to find a place to stay here. For three months,” Mathéo starts, “I looked at three rooms today. In the north, it was beautiful inside but dirty outside. Also, there were immigrants – Turks and black people… I can’t live like that!
“And the second was in the east of Berlin, but also dirty. But the one in the west… it was beautiful. A rich neighborhood. A large house, like a castle! And inside the bottom [floors] is all wood, and the flame is in the…” He struggles for the word in English.
“Yes!” Mathéo puts down his bag on the bed, and turns on some music. “So beautiful. But it was the strangest thing. Everyone so nice, but they do… fencing. Like fencing, with swords, but above their heads.”
Mr. Frenchman now begins to dance around the room, as if holding a petite sword above his head and pointing it daintily down at his opponent. He tells me that everyone in the house is required to practice three times a week, wearing colored sashes to mark their level. His room is beautiful, on the first floor and looking over the gardens. But he would be need to train in this martial art, wearing chain mail and a face guard that protects his eyes and throat, but not his cheeks – “and if you get hit, you bleed, you have to keep fighting.”
Mathéo pats his babyface carefully. “It felt… everything was perfect when I was in the house. Everyone so nice. But… I… when I left, I thought, what was I doing? It is like a sect!”
“It’s crazy, I won’t do it.” he adds, before wandering out of the room.
“I’ve decided to do it!” It’s going on 10pm, but Mathéo invites me out for a steak. He’s decided the fencing life is for him. We walk over to Hackescher Markt, each ordering a ribeye and coke.
Over dinner, Mathéo tells me that he grew up in Paris, but his father’s family came from the south of France. He went on vacation there every summer. The family was… “when you’re a child you don’t know,” he says. “They were so happy, so much food — ahhh —on the table, so many jokes. I loved it!” But now he sees his southern grandfather as a slacker, someone who didn’t work like a good man should.
We slice into our steaks, and he leans back.
“But my mother’s parents lived in Germany. And I didn’t know…” His mother’s father was a famous architect, “famous in the city, not in the world.”
“This man was so important. But at home, it was,” Mathéo grimaces and makes a rigid box in front of his face. “There were these small portions of meat. The big dining hall. Eating so precise. No conversation. And I thought, who is this man?”
Both fathers were in the War, and the children would beg for stories. Mathéo’s starchy German grandfather would only give them hints of information, with no emotion. But when the Frenchman was drunk, he would say “everything, such crazy stories” – Mathéo presses his hands to his face –
“And when you are a boy, you think, my grandfather is such a hero….”
“Süß!” He calls out to a pretty girl as we leave. She doesn’t turn around, and he keeps talking.
Mathéo tells me quite confidently that he’s here in Berlin to fuck and party, but also to make a lot of money. And he’s decided to join the third but crazy house, because it’s a good location. He can get a moped and work in the gardens of rich people, and become a famous architect. It will be fine to fence without a mask. No one will hurt him. He swings his arms as he walks, all expansive posture and big dreams.
“You work your way up, eventually you make 10 percent on a 100,000 Euro contract,” he says, still talking about his goals in architecture. Mathéo’s dream is to move to America and make it big. Unlike his grandfather, he’ll be famous in the world, and not just in the city.
The next day, he packs his bags and moves into the crazy fencing house. He has my contact info, but I don’t hear from him again. This is what I imagine he looks like now… and I wish him the best of luck!