Across the alley from us was the Paradise Dance Hall. On evenings in spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colours. Then the orchestra played a waltz or a tango, something that had a slow and sensuous rhythm. Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telegraph poles.
This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.
Adventure and change were imminent in this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids.
Suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella. In Spain there was Guernica!
But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, ban, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows…
All the world was waiting for bombardments.
– The Glass Menagerie (1944)
Mulling over tax forms, pensions and environmental collapse,
rotating dry days with fruit and vegetables.
googling symptoms and running on asphalt with sore knees.
stockpiling food and wishing for rain,
a cool sun and rich harvest.
Buying birthday cards and budgeting every day,
with an erstwhile friend in jail and speculating
on whisky shares, home wins and a political catastrophe.
Reading about illiberalism and new wave communism,
in a sticky hot t-shirt, wondering about rewilding and eco-towns,
unable to switch off and fearful of mistakes.
Taking Italian lessons with a new autumn land to map out,
while watching HBO dramas and crime noir stories,
on whatever pane of glass I can find.
Ash brown lawns and unwashed punks,
beer bottles are in short supply,
swifts and swallows feasting on moths,
rising tensions and diminishing returns,
forest fires and soaring temperatures
are signs of things to come
An orgy of swallows swarm over my pre-WWI courtyard every day. From the moment the sun breaks through my blinds, I love listening to them fight and feed. An unseasonable heatwave has seen temperatures reach the early 30s this week. Berlin’s tenement buildings are not equipped for the Anthropocene. I’m not sure we’re designed to work in such conditions.
My flat lies opposite a notorious anarchist commune in Rigaer Straße. Its been described elsewhere as a “squatters Champs-Élysées” with anarchists inked from head to toe running the entire street. As police vans watch them 24/7, the protagonists defiantly hang out banners and clutter the street with mattresses and toilet rims. There are trolleys stuffed full of recyclable bottles, plastic crates operating as seats, and a red Protestant church clattered with Bolshevik bullets.
I’m an invisible tourist in Berlin. Nobody pays any attention to me. Its a bizarre living arrangement in so many ways, but one I will look back upon with intrigue and pride. Like a swallow on a mistimed route, it feels incongruous for me to stay here, with my plain white arms chiming against the grime and the ink.
I gave Livia a 150€ cash deposit before she went home for Easter. She’s an Italian fashion photographer who divides her time between Rome, Milan, and Berlin. Her flat is rented out to lucky applicants throughout the year. It was the perfect size for me, and I felt grateful to be selected.
I have a fickle fascination with interior design. I am a late bloomer in that respect. It’s only since I moved around Europe that my visual perspective changed. Livia’s place is a tiny artist’s studio with Caravaggio and Don McCullers books nestling beside driftwood, pot plants, and a black vinyl record.
Virgin leaves sing in the courtyard as the first wasp of the year tries to get in. She has bored angels guarding the kitchen door. Her sofa is ruby rouge like a kiss. I sometimes wonder how I would decorate my place. But it’s time for me to go now. To a new place across the street.
Outside I hear the artist rattling her key.
Locked indoors and listening to the sweet cry of blackbirds, the church bell strikes noon. I love the songs of spring.
Ambulances and police vans are wailing in the distance amidst the clatter of twenty-first century life. Alien vehicles warding off death and destruction hour by hour.
Indoors I have two suitcases and a blank page for company. I refresh the screen to avoid working. I am subletting from a Roman fashion photographer. The sun beats behind my curtains as they fly from tree to tree.
I think about my plastic crates sitting in a warehouse in north London. How solemn and lonely they must be. A well organised skip that longs to be on display. Not trapped behind a steel door in the rain.
Writing from Berlin, I listen to a pianist play a festive melody as the snow settles on Arndtstraße. He plays every day while I type into a mute machine. The Bergmannstrasse area reminds me of Upper Street in Islington with its boutique florist shops. It’s a Christmas card looking for a frame. My book shelves are empty, but I have the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante to complete before the year closes.
There are entire libraries separating me and her prose.
“I don’t like Sliema, the roads are dirty, and the food isn’t so good”, my blonde Italian hairdresser told me. She had set up a salon with her Bologna-born sister here a few years ago. I popped in after buying moisturiser from a pharmacy and a shaver plug at the ironmongers. “In Italy, you are taxed 75% to set up a business. Here it’s much cheaper, and we get to practice our English.”
She charged me fifteen Euros for my haircut and recommended a new conditioner for my scalp. I promised to return before I depart next week. On visiting Malta in a nomadic capacity, I can converse in English without feeling embarrassed like I do in mainland Europe.
The Maltese are bi-lingual from childhood, and many can speak Italian due to the island’s proximity to Sicily. It didn’t declare independence from the UK until 1964, so the Commonwealth’s influence is profound, and going on routine errands here is disconcertingly easy.
With I-gaming companies flocking to Malta for tax breaks, Sliema has become a magnet for Brits, Scandis and Eastern Europeans, with the pouting Russian diaspora not far behind. The Maltese weather is splendid like a dream, and that’s one reason why so many people are choosing to live here.
Sometimes it feels like a 1980s English town, one juxtaposed alongside baroque churches and honey-coloured streets. During my first few days, I didn’t leave the area, and it felt peculiar seeing British high street brands again: Topshop, Clarks, Mothercare, Daily Mirrors, Twirl chocolate bars, and Sky Sports pubs serving pale ale.
Everything feels so easy here you forget how far you’ve travelled. That by coming here to live here, albeit only briefly, you are an agent of social and financial change – whether you like it or not.
Unlike the historic Maltese capital, this giant wall of construction is only a chain store away from Kentish Town. Cement mixers are continually stirring outside demolished nineteenth-century homes. Locals tell me their rents are soaring well above average salaries. For global capitalism is transitory and predatory. It monetises every square inch with impunity.
Some of these new builds are just shy of a million Euros, but despite them offering picture-perfect views of Valletta, they all look the same on the ground. It’s almost like we’ve given up on creating something magical of our own.
Across the bay in the romantic fortress, where Jesus, Mary and Queen Victoria lay encrusted in honeycomb lime, there is a far greater concentration of religion and art – not to mention imperial military might. I go for daily walks along the moon-cracked shore just so that I can take in the skyline. It’s astonishing something so beautiful has survived the torments of time.
Only then do I forget where I’m from – and you need to forget.
Otherwise, what’s the point?