I never thought much about Berlin until the academic world failed me (or I failed it). Up to that point, we—the academic world as well as I—had a relationship that others could loosely define as sadomasochistic: I thought that I could get to the core of it despite any rejection; academics had often blurred the personal with the professional in critiques of my own breeches of etiquette. To them, I was a rebel. I knew that there was no cause.
I met M3 before I re-entered the world of intellectuals. We were both working for free in a Southern California museum. I was spending entire days in a cold vault filled with priceless South Asian manuscripts that a motorcycle-riding aesthete purchased with family funds earned through the sales of crayons to Americans. She had signed up to learn from a scholar of contemporary art, which in Southern California brought her into contact with a Spanish-speaking population prone to Tijuana avant-gardism. When I saw her, she was fresh from London, dressed in bright florals. I thought that M3 was optimistic, open, in general someone that I wanted in my life instinctively. Years later, I still wonder whether this superficial frivolity was designed to appeal to people of English descent like me.
M3 visited me in Berlin after I left my Ph.D. program designed to produce an expert in manuscripts. Berlin was where I ended up without thinking. I had been in Paris, in the 7eme, corresponding with her, under a particularly strange family authority, then escaped to Germany for a week with another academic from Canton, finally refusing to return to France, or perhaps anywhere, ever.
What I knew of Berlin before I arrived there that summer was almost entirely derived from a small book published by Taschen on style. Its pages featured tidy apartments filled with books as well as little known paintings with good proportions. I remember dining room tables cleared of clutter, brightly lit rooms filled with natural light, as well as an odd sense after reading the book that I could find things there that I was unfamiliar with, that would clear my head of pretentiously goal-oriented stateside academic discourse. Sadly, my own Berlin apartment never looked like this—my Cantonese colleague painted it to resemble a cave in Dunhuang complete with Buddhist murals.
Somewhat incongruously present among these photographs of interiors was an image of Sigmund Freud’s couch covered in velvet with what I took to be the type of rugs or tapestries that I had studied for years as an Islamic art scholar. I associated Freud with Vienna, a city that I would later visit, yet knew little of then, or now. There is still no firm explanation in my mind as to why the couch was present in the Taschen book on Berlin Style.
“I’m hungry…” I would say to M3 after I had begun to convert. I was sleeping on her couch at the time with no sheets, only a red blanket. The hunger was so intense that I could not move.
“I know what to do,” she said. Then, she left me. After about fifteen minutes she returned with a small paper bag containing a sandwich from Little Poland. “This is what you eat,” she said. To wit, another intellectually oriented Roman Catholic would later tell me that Polish food had saved him many times from a blindingly empty stomach as a devotee of God.
When we were in Berlin, I had moved for a few weeks to a neighborhood associated with workers in blue collar uniforms. My apartment there was small. I had begun to eat rollmops, as well as generally observe another side of the city that for me would not contradict Taschen, yet perhaps did for others.
I recall one fun day on the tram with M3. She was talking about London, about doner kebab. I was wearing a silk Balenciaga dress that I paired with Agent Provocateur. It was meant for a woman that did not need the Agent Provocateur perhaps, yet I was smaller as well as curvier than the runway or fit models of that year.
We rode the tram into East Berlin, into the Mitte neighborhood where I lived most of the time. We shopped at a boutique where they sold Comme des Garcons. M3 bought a tote bag that matched my wallet. Then, we walked to a small café that served Alpenlaendische Spezialitaeten. I loved it there. The place was clean, sometimes a patron would smoke near the door. When I ordered soup, the broth was clear as well as pungent. The café sold charcuterie made of game, which I adore with a likely Ainu (native Japanese) palate. Most customers would add a fresh, crisp green salad with a homemade vinaigrette including chopped shallots as well as local juices to their meal.
M3 was a good sport about our lunch that day, yet she felt that one table of Germans was a bit hostile to her presence. I noticed it too, yet had no real explanation other than xenophobia. I did not provoke that reaction myself when alone there, yet could still not eliminate the possibility of xenophobia—I am also part Northern German, can check every box on so-called “racial” identity forms.
What I had started to see then, in M3, was an economic difference. M3 had been poor in an area of London called “Hoxton” or something. She was training at the time as a sort of artistic connoisseur of design. Despite her European-based poverty, she had worked her way up to a New York level poverty of $150K per annum. This was her salary around that time. She was thus able to visit me in Berlin.
When the Cantonese colleague of mine saw us together, she was sitting on my couch, I remember. I had ended up with a pair of sunglasses, cheap, from another Russian intellectual fan of Andrei Rublev who preached a less bourgeois academic approach yet did not fear the loss of cheap sunglasses. She thought that I should talk to him, as well as liked my approach to my friendship with M3; it was girly. I trusted this woman’s opinion of M3 so much that I went to New York to stay at M3’s East Village apartment from Lexington, Kentucky while under another strange family authority never-to-return for the exact same number of years that I spent in Berlin. M3 is also Chinese of course, yet only in part. She was blonde as a child before her hair darkened then curled, revealing Latin as well as Syrian roots.
I slept on M3’s couch for almost a year during which I became a Roman Catholic after saying the Shahada or Profession of Faith as part of my art history training, which made me a Muslim. Converting this way is supposedly impossible, yet I did it not thinking. I did it in New York. I did it while listening to M3 cry as well as strategize to marry an Egyptian Muslim named after a great Jewish leader who frequented a café of quality in the neighborhood when not at home in his apartment on Saint Mark’s place. After this conversion I could take a spot in two out of three communities in Ahl al-Kitab, the third, Judaism, being an ethnic-religious group was harder to get into, though after another strange family authority I may have a part-Jewish sibling in heaven, as well as a Jewish ex-stepfather to match a person that I call ex-mother.
Identities are something related to style, yet seem easier to manipulate for some. What I learned of M3 while on her couch that year acting as a kind of late night talk-therapist was that she found it difficult to self-define. She felt pigeonholed, kept a tidy well-designed studio apartment as a sign of who she wanted to be. The mortgage was exorbitant as well as required family subsidies. As a result, I, with nowhere to go, agreed to pay a woman who I wanted to believe was a friend $2000 a month to sleep on a couch. I could have had more space; she asserted this after throwing me out due to lack pf payment. A visual scholar, I had to assume that my assumption about no free space in the full closets was false.
My conversion happened slowly that year, as per the schedule at Saint Patrick’s Old Basilica—the Roman Catholic church where I received the sacrament of baptism, identical to the one featured in the movie The Godfather. I had intended to convert to solve an old problem that I had regarding European cultural authenticity as a person of mixed heritage; I felt that I had met a lot of people referencing the faith who condescended on the merits of tradition as well as pop culture. I wanted clarity; it was the same Berlin clarity that I wanted.
M3 threw me a baptism party the day of my conversion. We had spent the time leading up to that point together most nights as friends. I listened to her trials with the Egyptian msn, her love. She had almost died while on vacation with him. He had cheated on her in some way. She cared for his mother, etc…
I listened while on the couch, accruing bills for giving a kind of therapy. I, unlike Freud’s patients, paid for being able to care, to be a friend. I wanted to love M3 perhaps, to be accepted by her, emotionally, as well as economically. Soon, we would even be the same religion in a way. M3 was raised orthodox Catholic from a group in communion with Rome, was now practicing Buddhism.
M3 cried when I converted, she told me that she felt so proud of me, like a mother. “Tell me about your mother,” Freud would tell his patients. My ex-mother at the time was someone that I had begun to distrust, yet I had not yet learned to distrust M3.
At the beatification of Saint Juan Diego, the Polish Pope Saint John Paul II—the peasant from the Carpathians who received that identity as a critique–praised Mexico for having a near perfect Roman Catholic inculturation, briefly alluding to race as a non-Christian concept. The blessed mother—the Virgin Mary, Maryyam—had appeared there as an Aztec princess to the disbelief of educated clergy.
I did once attend a party of artists in Tijuana with M3 during her time in the museum with me. There was a burgeoning movement among the creative set to build homes out of cast-off items, a kind of refuse. A colleague of M3’s at the time with nuns in her family went to live in one of these homes, according to M3. M3 was disappointed, pursued new design of a more novel sort while laughing at documentaries on cable television about Nazis. Most nights during that time on the couch, while away from Berlin where people who had lived in squats played electronic music, I had to watch these documentaries with M3 instead of dancing. I tried to love her, as well as find her the royal Egyptian love that she had come to need. As it turned out, that young man on Saint Mark’s place was of royal blood, as well as connected in Switzerland.