In the spring two boys follow me in my neighbourhood, breaking into fake Arabic.
Then the sun lights up the city for me. With the tourists, I too am free.
At the tail end of the summer, I am yelled at for sitting on the grass,
while young men play football a few meters away.
In the autumnal haze I am confronted violently in the supermarket.
When the temperature drops below freezing, my thick coat becomes a liability;
it is too heavy to move quickly with.
Warmth is fickle; now you see it, now you don’t.
Being still provides the opportunity for a face-off. So do walking, buying groceries, slowing down – anything that might open up space for a public scolding. It is not unique to me, but I am unique to it.
In New York, the sidewalk was angry but mine, the crosswalk too, the streets, the platforms, the parks. In New York too, I took the other exit to stay out of harm’s way, but I was talking back, walking back, because it was mine, because I knew it, because it knew me, it knew like me. Berlin does not offer me the same sense of ownership. Public space contracts imperceptibly. One day I notice that I do not want to leave the house. I begin a plant collection to bring the outside in, but perhaps I have simply been successfully influenced. The plants die because I overwater them; just another symptom of my excessive care for the world.
I take to running to be able to breathe again. The weather does not want to make it easy, but I put on my best face and I do it anyway. I run everywhere. I run past the memorials to the victims of Stalinism and fascism and the school of art and the plush hotels and the construction sites for yet more luxury apartments. I circle the same block over and over again when I haven’t quite fulfilled my quota for self-mastery. None of my fellow runners return the customary nods I give them. Walkers look at me in wonder, and I recognize the familiar stare. It is a particular kind of stare, not the kind you would expect in response to the World’s Most Popular Hobby. Now and again I receive an overexaggerated response, a heavily extended thumbs up stuck right in my face, or the kind of applause you might give when you hear a particularly virtuosic aria. I am no aria. I am simply embodying a kind of rigor that reads as out of place on my body, which is exactly what the applause is for.
I keep running alone, which is how I feel. I choose stark places, where I know I can solitude in silence. I run around Ernst-Reuter Platz, pretending I can race cars, and past the university, which now has a new memorial to the Polish soldiers who liberated Berlin. I take a picture of the Oury Jalloh: Das war Mord (that was murder) sign in the window of the main building every time I pass it, because German remembrance culture paradoxically folds inward on itself.
In the summer, I run in Grunewald, where I discover that I can shed my fear and dip into the lakes. It is here, at my most vulnerable, that I find I am welcomed by the regulars. They arrive daily at the same time, naked on bicycles, collecting mushrooms, chatting easily. Before long, I, too, am at the receiving end of their kind observations about the state of the water and the forest. Nothing surprises me more than this.
When it cycles cold again I learn to steel my body. I run through Tiergarten often, ignoring any turning heads, marveling at the patience of the trees in obeisance to the water. In January, I run to the Landwehrkanal to leave red tulips for Rosa Luxemburg. I think of the fragility of her prodigal dried plant collection and also of my efforts to get my body to bend to my will publicly. I think of all the times I have been hustled along while taking in a particular part of the city, of each time I try to make a memory of public space mine.
I am no fool: I know that castigation is not physical violence, ocular interrogations are not fisticuffs, that threats only hang in the air and have not yet landed on my body. For the most part, I feel safe. I am simply another Brown woman disciplining themselves in service of capital. But when I run, I am faster than the city. Have you tried yelling at a running person? It doesn’t work, because they don’t care.
They’re already gone.
Stay in the loop by subscribing to our newsletter.