I’ve lived in this Berlin neighbourhood for seven years. That’s the longest I’ve ever stayed in one place. I buy my groceries from grocers who chat with me, flowers from a florist whose children go to the same school as mine, receive parcels from delivery men who know me by sight. Not everyone knows how long I’ve been here, not everyone is happy to see me, some refuse to accept that I can even speak the language. But I feel like I know every cobblestone, street, building and playground intimately, enough to notice when there is a subtle change, like a fresh coat of paint, like a replacement piece for an old bench or stoop, a new plant on a sill.
Of course, as with any city, many businesses come and go. Some shops are a carousel of failed ventures, while others are dank caves of bad service, or even more seldom, time-tunnels frozen in space: The hair salon from the eighties that still has the plastic mannequin heads and Vidal Sassoon posters, though they’ve long since faded and gone out-of-style. The dusty second-hand shop out of Grimm’s fairy tales with delicate embroideries, assortments of Bierstein, porcelain tea sets, tarnished silverware, and oval mirrors. The ancient shoe repair shop with its strong odor of shoe polish, leather and hide glue, the one that looks like it has been there since the middle ages when every shoe could given a new sole, re-stitched, worn for life.
Then there are the trees. I find great comfort in knowing the trees, even more than the buildings, shops and people. I know when the narrow side street of cherry trees will burst into bloom (right now). I know where there’s a curious hybrid of a tree with simultaneous pink and white blossoms. I know the tree we stood by when my daughter touched her first autumn leaf, the one where my son learned to ride a scooter, the one we sat under with a picnic blanket listening to birds.Two trees are especially significant to me. One of them stands in the courtyard of my apartment building. It is a tall, slender maple with beautiful dark bark, a graceful maiden of a tree with a lacy canopy. Two love birds sit in its branches, sunlight sprinkles through its fluttering leaves, falling on the birds in golden droplets, spreading everywhere like confetti as it hits the pavement. This tree is the only thing in the cemented courtyard that tells us the season, the direction of wind, the kind of weather. In the fall, it’s the first to turn bright yellow. In the winter, it catches the snow as elegantly as an ebony frame. Its small compact buds foretell of spring, and its open leaves catch the moist heat of summer. I’ve lived with this tree for seven years.
I never knew this tree had another story until I met the woman who planted it. My upstairs neighbour Nancy, she planted the tree in the courtyard nearly twenty years ago. She told me the courtyard wasn’t always stone, it used to be a lush garden where children from the building played in all day. She had moved here from Cuba when the infamous wall still divided the city, when this was East Berlin. She loved it here back then, she found the neighbours warm and friendly (not so much now). She chose the spot for the tree, a bare corner at the far end, dug a hole and planted it, they had a garden party afterwards.
Another tree I love is a young plum tree in a preschool garden. It looks exactly like a Van Gogh painting, you know the one with graceful brushstrokes crowding lithe branches, a bright turquoise sky swirling between billowy clouds of white blossoms and curving sage-green leaves. A swirly abundance crowning the glory of a leaning tree trunk almost too slender to hold it all. The picture that’s been printed on millions of postcards and greeting cards, the one they say was inspired by Japanese prints, every time I see this tree I think of it.
I also met the person who planted this tree, an experienced preschool teacher, she planted it together with her first group of children. They still have the picture from the event. There she is holding the skinny young sapling smiling, the kids form a bright ring around her. It’s the early nineties, the picture is faded, all the kids are adults now. I wonder if she was happier then, if she misses the children. I wonder if it brings her joy, or if it is actually a strange kind of hell to be doing the same thing year after year, getting older and older, yet having a constant tide of fresh young souls, completely new to the world. Then they must leave her.
The past is often not what we expect: good or bad, forward or backwards, better or worse. Something so solid and fixed now was put in place for any number of reasons, from the thoughtless to the grand, the practical to the romantic, the casual to the purposeful. And a peaceful home like this one was built by those who lived through times long buried in the sediment. But nothing ever really goes away. It’s more like shifting patterns of dormancy and growth, rediscovery and forgetting, calamity and calm. Nourishment comes up from the roots, sometimes sparking, sometimes impeding progress.
I feel like one of those trees. Sometimes it feels like I’m meant to be here, exactly here, thriving in this time and place. Sometimes I must break a sweat, blister my hands, struggle with the effort of planting myself in cemented soil.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker.