Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Blind Breakfast in Berlin

An artist friend of mine had decided to do a performance in which he would negotiate the streets of Berlin, blind for the day. My instructions were to document the project with a camera with telephoto lens; to follow at a discreet distance. I was not supposed to help him or converse with him unless he was in danger and I wasn't supposed to give the game away that he was able sighted. At least, that is what I thought.

I picked him up early Sunday morning from his flat in Prenzlauer Berg. He was the only tenant living in the side block of a tenement house. In fact, he wasn't really supposed to live in the flat at all, as it was meant to be a studio space. He made it habitable, putting in a bathroom himself. It had coal oven heating, but it was tough in the winter when the pipes froze and there was no running water. What a beautiful flat though, high ceilings, large rooms, and all that for a very cheap rent.

We had a black espresso coffee, and it occured to me that unlike other British expats I knew he wasn't craving PG Tips or marmite, but drank green tea and black espresso coffee. An English friend of mine who had visited him, had even believed him to be German. Maybe it was because he had come to Berlin in his early 20s and me in my thirtieth year.

He dressed for the role, making sure that he really couldn't see anything behind his dark glasses, and he started negotiating the three flights of wooden stairs that led down to the courtyard with his improvised walking stick.

I started to trail him at a distance of about 20 metres. The streets were quiet apart from the clack clack of his white stick on the uneven paving stones. I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, idly pointing my camera at treetops whilst trying not to let him of of my sights.

Suddenly, I heard a voice coming from a nearby first floor window:

"Was machst Du hier? Fotografierst Du Ihn. Weisst ER das?"
I thought for a second:

"Sorry, I don't understand German", I lied

"What are you doing" he persisted in perfect English", "Are you photographing that blind man? Does he know?"

I put on a puzzled expression, as if I thought this was an extremely interesting question that needed mulling over, smiled sweetly and continued in my way. For a newly blind person, my friend was surprisingly quick on his feet and I didn't want to lose him, especially as a busy road was coming up.
But there was no escape.
Suddenly, in his fresh T-shirt, strawberry blonde wavy hair and sunglasses, he had come out onto the street and was at my side. He had a clean-shaven and freshly-breakfasted appearance, which was unusual in Berlin at this hour, and made me all the more wary of him.

"Can you tell me? Is this blind man, I mean, is this blind man for real?"

I looked ahead at my friend anew, as if through this man's eyes. My friend had that just got out of bed hair look, the kind that is not achieved through hair products. He was wearing a roomy unpressed suit that he had bought in a second hand shop. His shoes were black and cumbersome with white flecks of paint on them. Against this backdrop he was wearing a large pair of sunglasses with large pads of cotton wool taped behind them over his eyes and was using a stick which had been quite clearly covered in white emulsion paint.

"Yes, he is blind", I lied through my teeth.

"But this isn't for real, is it? Surely...." he said, becoming decidedly more animated as he searched for the next question.

At this moment I thought about one of the breakfasts that were on offer in a cafe I knew. The "Katerfruehstueck" or "hangover breakfast" which was simply an espresso, an aspirin and a cigarette. Only this, I thought, could help me, now.  Instinctively, though, I realised that this was more of a Mate Tea, chili chocolate muesli and courgette flower man.

The interogation gained momentum.

"And what are you doing here with the camera, then?" he continued.

(Aren't you one of those sick and twisted voyeurs who go around photographing blind men for kicks, oh what's the word for that in English, ...damn)

"I am just following him", I replied.

(Why don't you bog off and mind your own business. Haven't you ever seen a blind man who looks suspiciously like Charlie Chaplin being followed by a pigeon-toed English female with a large lens and a poor command of German before?)

"Does he realise you are following him?" he went on.

(I know your sort, you should be locked up! You rabid stalker! Someone call the police!)

"Well, I don't know really."

(Why don't you ask him yourself? Do you assume that because he is blind he is unable to speak for himself? Honestly. Some people are so ignorant.)

Anger flitted briefly across his face, followed by defeat. I shrugged my shoulders in a  - I am sorry, but it must be a communication problem, and hey, I have got a date with a blind artist way- and hurried to the main road just in time to see my friend being helped over the road by a little old lady. I didn't want to miss this shot!

Incredibly, or perhaps not so, knowing my rather poor sense of direction and tendency to get distracted, I lost my friend, I really did. This, I hasten to add, is before we both had mobiles. I had paused to change my camera film, when I caught sight of some friends brunching in a nearby cafe. Already by this time, around 2003, it was impossible to get a decent breakfast in Berlin as the brunch menu has seeped its way insiduously into every establishment. This meant that a breakfast  lasted anything from four hours to an overnight stay, and if you were lucky, they let you out before you had to have another one. At the end of any given Sunday afternoon, these cafes spat out gorged caffienated wrecks onto the cobblestones, gibbering incoherently about Mikado chocolate sticks, baked pears and couscous salad.

Needless to say, by the time I had resisted the temptation to go to brunch, my artist friend was already far away.

In the cosy knowledge that there was a reliable friend at hand, he had already headed down the underground station and had managed to board a train that would take him safely, no thanks to me, to work.

And the strawberry blond man who drinks mate tea for breakfast? Well, after I crossed the main road to the Weinbergsweg Park, I looked back to see him rooted to the spot with a puzzled expression on his face. And as far as I know, he is still there.

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