Paris is hot as hell. Berlin is not much better. Me and Anna are on the train back from BER. The cheapest flight got us up at 4am, the €6 airport coffee is not cutting it. We are listening to music together, sharing one headphone each, blocking out Berlin. I’m grumpy. We want to see the cats. I don’t want to listen to the conversations, and the children screaming, the electrical tones and the muffled microphone announcements. I want my own world. Our own world.
Our place is a little like that. We scored it during the pandemic, it’s in a neighborhood and at a size that we should not be able to afford. The man who lived there died in the house. For the ten years previous he had become a shut-in. When we first got it was all black stains, peeling nicotine wallpaper, loose viagra with no power. An old shirt hung off the back of a hidden door. That was all he left. On the broken panel on the front door, the cops had slapped police tape to keep it from falling out. It was spooky there. We had a hard time getting used to it. We had no clue who lived there until one morning a strange letter arrived. A friend had been paying his rent for years, and now the man’s bank account was closed. He knocked on the door one morning and we told him what had happened, he wasn’t surprised. The previous tennant was once a renowned therapist. After the Syrian refugee crisis in Berlin he started work pro-bono, dedicating his professional life to free work—while his interior life crumbled into dust. We built the place back up for an affordable rental contract, renovated about every inch of the place until it felt like home. During Covid it became more than that. Even after the pandemic, I had trouble leaving the house. I had trouble getting back to the world, one which had become murky.
I’ve never been an especially pro-active person when it comes to absorbing art. I’ll stop off at a museum sometimes if I’m traveling, or go to a gallery if Anna and I have a quiet weekend. If a club night crosses over with performance, or a reading comes with free booze, I’ll go. If a cinema night is free somewhere you can count me in. When I get home from work I skip over all the art-house classics I’ve downloaded and stream something instead. I’m lazy. I have a diary full of nights I should attend, and I consider them until the moment I have to leave the house, then I just lie down in bed and check my emails. On the train, I block out the city, and stuff headphones in my ears. I scroll to Spotify and find my “on-repeat” playlist, and let my body relax into the seat. For a million years I worked in hospitality, and often still do. Life was either long shifts or shorts shifts, doing something creative was a plan for the elusive next-Sunday.
While we’re on the S-bahn coming home from the airport I notice a familiar face, one that comes unexpected. He’s a poet, or so I’ve heard. For six years I’ve seen him around. He has kind, but slightly wild eyes. He looks as though he lives in the street, but who can tell. He carries around slips of paper, sits with people who are interested and talks. They listen. All manner of people take him up on this offer. People you would not expect, the type that wouldn’t hesitate to shoo someone away without a second’s thought. I usually just give him a coin, and then watch with headphones while he sits beside someone else. Whispering. People know him, they told me he’s a poet. I talk about him sometimes, as though he’s a close friend, in that way you talk about local faces. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know this man. I just see him sometimes. I have no connection to this human being. In fact, I haven’t even seen him around lately, but on the train from BER he is walking by us. He never approaches anyone. You approach him. I never do. He’s about to pass by.
Tyler and Scott have been living in Paris for a little while. They’re nice enough to let us stay at their place. We went there to visit them, but also because the tickets were cheap. Scott’s mother is from Paris. His whole family, bar one, have been bouncing back and forth from the city for the last ten years. Now he’s here again, with Tyler. Scott moves like liquid, alternating from languidity into charging white water with a snap. You have to keep his interest. He laughs a lot, sometimes he listens intently, hangs on your every syllable, sometimes he doesn’t listen to you at all. He’s been like this since he was born. He woke up with a mind that hums like a powerline. Tyler is laid back, she’s got a generous smile, but her expression reminds you that she’s sharp. Tyler wouldn’t have an issue letting you know if you crossed a line. She considers everything, your shit talk is taken seriously. She thinks about what your day will be like. She lets you know she needs time to herself. They are engaged, and in sync. They fire each other up, stir one another, they take little moments to whisper in each other’s ear. By the canal Scott nips the skin on Tyler’s arm with his teeth. They share an apartment in Aubervilliers. It’s a nice place, with a large central room. It’s full of midcentury furniture. It’s not theirs, the landlord used to own a furniture shop at the market nearby. Like most people, they live cheap. They hide the leather sofa in the spare room from Eno, Scott’s brother’s pussycat, who oscillates between chirping pleasantly and flurry of wild claws. Their place is a quiet space, where most of the day Tyler, along with Scott’s brother work from home, offering to pick something up from the shops and occasionally muttering to their computers. They have a bookshelf full of records. Film posters. A million french books. A slab of clay with Eno’s teeth marks. The window yawns open, outside the men of Aubervilliers shout, drink, sometimes play cards on an upturned crate. There’s a pizza place next door. We’re told to avoid it.
Their household is peaceful, but neither are lazy. Tyler is about to start working on her PHD at Columbia. She just got 3k in grant money stolen by hackers. She’s taking it well. Her day seems to be a revolving carousel of careers swaying in circles around her. She’s responding to emails while applying for grants, before Columbia she applied to a million universities, she’s on the phone to Australian banks while giving us directions to Montmartre. She’s capable. In her position for five minutes I shout and scream. Tyler settles her stress with a quick nap, and jokes about it all the next day. Aside from co-founding an indie film production company Scott works ten hours a day in a French production house. He’s still on minimum wage. You wouldn’t call the both of them starving artists, but they are not living the easy life either. Still, come seven-thirty, Scott will usually have a plan, and it will usually involve getting off the couch. A gig, a screening, a reading. I don’t get the feeling it’s on account of us being there. He’s a hungry boy, the kind of guy who feels like he might pace around his bedroom gesticulating if he found out he was homebound. He takes me and Anna to an experimental music night at a pub. His friend tags along. He’s a laid-back guy with a Junji Ito shirt. His kid is away, and he has the weekend to himself. He thought Scott was going to be at the park for a cinema event. He was wrong. The park is tomorrow.
A Canadian guy runs the music night in a low-lit hole in the wall pub. Scott asks him what act he’s looking forward to and the dude does a limbo act. The Canadian is slippery, the kind of guy who would rather walk on hot coals than give a declarative statement. The kind of nice guy who could be a really mean guy if he felt like it. The bar staff don’t seem stoked about the music. It’s an old looking establishment in a busy area. Upstairs at the top of the balcony the tables are still up. The front windows are reclosable. Every pint comes in a different glass. The music is not harsh noise, it’s rhythmic tones, bright theremin warbles. A lady presents a pleasant but jarring synthscape, some of us sit on the floor. The crowd is friendly. Me and Scott swap turns heading to the bathroom. As I traverse the sticky stairs, people stare like Europeans do. I mumble to them and pretend I speak French, I fool no one. Scott and his friend talk about art festivals they’ve been to, they talk about their projects. His friend asks me about a festival in Berlin. I’m not sure I’ve heard of it. The bartender is getting grumpier. Inside it’s hot as fuck. He slams the folded chairs against the hallway. Anna innocently asks me what people get out of this kind of music. I’m drunk enough to offer her a series of condescending rants. She politely nods and stares at my pint bobbing on the table, then after a while she shushes me. She’s having a good time. The night ends when the final act is cut off by sudden silence. I’m in the bathroom with my phone turned the wrong way. The power goes out. “Did they blow the fuse?”, “No, I think they’re kicking us out.” We stand out the front for five minutes while a junkie tries to sell us stolen t-shirts from the back of an e-scooter.
A few days later, back in Berlin, on the S-bahn heading home, the poet passes me and Anna and I say hello. I want to find out if he’s really a poet or not. I pull out my headphone. He grips a folded piece of paper before my eyes. I want it. I want to read it. He prefaces it in quick, erratic German, I’m not following it. I want to read it. He tells me that I have to read this poem aloud, three times, the more times the more powerful. He tells me many things, his eyes are fixated on me, but he’s looking past me. He tells me that 50 cents will get me the poem, but the more money the more powerful it will become. A thousand euros and it will be beyond power. I only have a euro. He reads the poem to Anna and I three times, first trying to clarify whether Anna is a child or not (she’s 25). He finishes the poem, says a few more baffling things, and disappears. Our stop is here. I forget to read it aloud. It has no power now.
His name is Timo. His note includes his address. He lives on the same street that I once did. Me and Anna get home, unpack and lie for a moment on an unmade bed. I get some sleep. I’ve decided I’m going to a reading later in Neukölln.
Here’s Timo’s poem in English. I don’t think he would mind.
German readers interested in Timo can find out more information about him here.
Thomas Huntington is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for Grattan Street Press, Apocalypse Confidential, Berlinable, and Post-Human Magazine. He is the founder and indentured servant of Soyos Books. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.