Writing On The Ringbahn

Kate Leismer hops on the S-Bahn to join the 24-hour Literatur auf Dem Ring project…

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in early February, I was invited to participate as a writer and observer for a 24-hour writing event on the Berlin Ringbahn that involved seven authors from across Europe. An assorted mix of novelists and poets writing in German, French and Italian, the idea was that they upload their texts to the Literatur auf Dem Ring blog every couple of hours.

The linguistic disparities of the writing reflect the European nature of the project; although the artists are primarily working independently, they all understand the project as a collaboration. After boarding at S-Bahn Schönhauser Allee, all the writers scattered. Most worked on laptops, but one carried a typewriter, and as the train circled the city, we are all left alone across two cars.

Some worked on novels or short fiction, others wrote poetry or simply made literary observations. Although I did not participate in the full 24-hour event, joining only for a few hours in the evening, I also contributed my own notes and literary musings to the project, which can be found below. The results of the entire experiment can be found at the official website.

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Left to Right: Robert Klages (DE), Nikita Afanasjew (DE), and Patrick WEH Weiland (DE). At this point they had all been writing for around nine hours. Image by Kate Leismer.

Home. We attach so much, perhaps because we don’t have one. I will not write about being American. I will not write about being American. I will not write about being American.

The Russian. He pulls the cap off his thermos and pours me coffee, still hot. We are passing the cap of coffee back and forth, the Russian and me, and he says, “This is the Russian way.” When I tell him that I am concerned with my American identity and ask if he can relate, he says, “No, I don’t have this.”

Metaphors. The train, the ring, the circle that takes one hour, which is on repeat, like space and time, like a day, like a season, a lifetime.

One hour. She makes a list of all the things you can do in an hour. It is not very long: eat and fuck.

Birds. At the main terminal, the birds are trapped between the three walls of the station, not seeming to sense the cold air at the end of the tunnel, the way out, the escape. Desperate, yet uncaged.

One night. You can accomplish much more in a moment. The lights begin to flicker.

Year one. There is motion in history no looking back, because the progression is endless, though you can always hope for an interruption, the sounds of change and possibility: Ausstieg Links.

Language. Inevitably, they ask, and I answer: “Es tut mir lied. Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut. Können Sie Englisch sprechen?” They tell me that apologizing is such an American thing to do, and that I should stop, even though I genuinely feel sorry about my German.

Fiction. The Ukrainian maid knows that I am dirty. The elderly neighbors upstairs don’t trust me. The police have stopped me for riding on sidewalks. All cab drivers become targets of my German practice and I always ask, “Woher kommen Sie?” relieved when they say, “Turkei,” because that is what I suspect. And I want them to laugh when I try to pronounce, “Teşekkür ederim.” Sometimes they pull a smile when I talk about that one time in Istanbul. A student at the German university wants to talk to me, because he thinks Americans are cool. He wants to move to San Diego, and learn how to surf, and maybe I could teach him a California accent. Late one night a man tried to steal my purse and I fought him until those Turkish teens came running when they heard me scream, and he ran off because it wasn’t worth the fight. And I still had my purse, so it wasn’t worth the story.

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Image by Amelie Vrla

Stories. “Don’t you ever confuse the words Geschichte and Gesicht?” I asked him, because they sound the same, and isn’t a face, sort of like a story? “No,” the German tells me, “Never.”

American. I have a superpower. It is my ability to hear Americans, from across a room, a train car, or across the city. Like a bird-call. We hear our own, though we don’t want to be heard.

Siblings. This section of the city has more children. There is more room to play, and here is a blonde German, sitting silent and alone, his arms folded, with his eyes large and watching. I have seen the children like this before, traveling alone. Is he lost? Soon, his sister approaches, to take the next seat, she wraps her arms around him, and pulls him close.

The cross. North-South, East-West, it makes a cross. Our lips have crossed paths too, coffee to wine, wine to water, water to wine.

The room. There is a bed on the floor, but no one knows who has slept there before. She could have been French, or African, or American. Our job is to clean the bed sheets. The bodies, like the sheets, are always replaced. Ausstieg Rechts.

Window. Day one. I stood at the window, my hands pressed against the glass, considering, how many had been here before, and they didn’t look back, they didn’t always seem to look back.

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Left to Right: Kate Leismer, Robert Klages (DE), Amélie Vrla (FR).

English. A French-Swiss man tells me: “I hate English,” and explains that it is homogonizing Europe. And the advertisers don’t have to translate anymore, because English looks “cool.”

Ancestors. Why do I have the feeling that I have been here before? Why do I have the feeling that we have been here before? We circle the city, like vultures.

The homeless man. Of course, the train is a resting spot for the homeless, there would be no end to the warmth, to survival. In a circle, you are never lost, you are never lost, and you are never lost…

Routes. The lights come up again, and I don’t recognize, that we are on my route home. I have seen these stops before. And this time around, I forgot my route. I forgot my Platz, my Kiez, my Sprache, my Heimat.

Controller. “You must buy a ticket, and if you don’t you will be fined.” Three times you are fined, and you lose your visa. He asks me what I am doing. Then he asks what I am doing here. I reach in my own pocket, and come up empty. I never paid the fare.

Kate Leismer is an American author living in Berlin. You can visit her website here or catch her on Twitter.  A live reading from the Literatur auf Dem Ring project will take place on Friday 13 February.

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