Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and inspire many of us who lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.
This month we travel
the hole with Paul Scraton to Berlin.
Paul says he isn’t intimately familiar with Lewis Carroll’s classic work—this despite having had a mainly English childhood. He was born and spent his early years in a market town just north of Liverpool; and, though his family moved around a fair bit in Paul’s early years—Wales, Canada, the south of England—they settled in Lancashire once he reached school age. At 18, he crossed the north–south divide to attend the University of Leeds.
But I feel justified in including Paul in this series first because he is most certainly displaced. Upon graduation from Leeds, he moved to Berlin, Germany, which is where we find him today, living with his German partner, Katrin, and their daughter. Apart from a summer spent in Dublin, the German capital has been Paul’s “home” for the past 14 years.
In addition, having studied Paul’s creative output, I think it is fair to say that for him, “elsewhere”—by that he seems to mean the great outdoors—is a kind of Wonderland. He never tires of exploring the area where he lives. He has served as a tour guide for Slow Travel Berlin and written two short books based on walks he has led in and around his adopted city.
Another place to which he has formed a deep attachment is Germany’s Baltic coast. Katrin spent much of her childhood on the the island of Rügen and in the Hanseatic city of Stralsund, and for about a decade, Paul has accompanied her on trips to the region.
Paul writes a regular series of “dispatches” about his various outdoor adventures—whether in Germany or the UK (which he still visits frequently)—for his blog, under a grey sky…
And now he has just released the very first issue of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, of which he is the founding editor.
Without further ado, let’s find out what it’s like to be “wonderlanded” with Paul.
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Paul Scraton: Although it was quite a few years ago now, I can remember what it was like when I first arrived in Berlin and needed help with everything, from registering an apartment to opening a bank account. It was certainly challenging, even though Berlin is a city where many people speak English. And it is often only in the moving that you realise what aspects of life are different or not easily accessible compared to “back home”…and that can certainly make you feel lonely in a new city, a new country.
I did not have an internet connection in my first couple of Berlin apartments, and the English newspapers were expensive, so I relied a lot on BBC World Service. It is funny that this is not that long ago, but I imagine it is a different experience now with widespread internet access, social media and Skype.
I think the reason I first resisted the idea of Berlin or my life in another country as “wonderland”, besides a lack of familiarity with the books, is that by the definition of the Displaced Nation I am so often in this wonderland that it would never occur to me to frame it in that way. What I mean by this: when I am in Berlin I feel like I don’t quite belong, but when I go “back” to England having lived abroad for 14 years then I feel just as out of place. So it is something of a permanent state.
Despite this I can recognise that there are elements of life and my experience in Berlin (and beyond) after all these years that I still find curious…
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
Having just finished university with no real idea of what I wanted to do except to write, I did wonder whether Berlin was the right place for me in the sense that I felt a long way away from any community or other people doing something similar in English. But several of us built our own little network, and, with the influx of still more international creatives over the years, there is now a small but thriving community of English-language writers and other like-minded folk.
“But what did the Dormouse say?” one of the jury asked.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Berlin was its history and the stories contained within these streets. One of the questions I would often ask people when I met them was whether or not they had grown up in the east or the west, and their experiences of living in a divided city and country and also what they thought about the process of reunification. In more recent years I was involved with running eyewitness history talks with people who told their personal stories of living in the city during the Nazi era or the Second World War, or living under communism in East Germany or in the “island city” that was West Berlin. Sometimes people in the audience, who were mainly visitors from outside Germany, would ask questions that would make me worry that the speaker would be offended, but actually it never happened. The Germans were happy to answer even difficult questions about their past or that of their families. In general, this is one of the strengths of the German society—the extent to which they have acknowledged, come to terms with, and discussed, debated and learned from their history; and you see it with individuals as well.
“Curiouser and curiouser…”
I think what really struck me about moving to Germany was not any sense of culture shock, but that the differences to back home were subtle and needed time to be discovered. In Berlin especially people can be very direct… there is very little tip-toeing around the subject, which can be a bit disconcerting. The main thing I still haven’t really fathomed is Schlager music, and the assorted television shows that showcase it. Finding yourself in the middle of something like that is one of those moments where you really realise you are living in a place where there are certain cultural traditions you have no grasp of, and to which you may never have access.
“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice…
My partner introduced me to good German pickled gherkins, and without her prompting I doubt I would ever have touched them. Now I quite like them.
“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail…
I am fascinated by Germany’s Baltic coast. One of the reasons is that I am fascinated by the coast in general, I think because it is a place that combines (a) the sense of escape that comes with family holidays, the seaside resorts, and the break with everyday life; and (b) the danger, myths and legends of the sea itself. Most seaside towns have both beaches where people have spent many, many happy hours, as well as memorials to shipwrecks and lifeboat crews… This contrast or contradiction applies, by the way, to the coast of the UK as much as here in Germany. (See for instance my blog post about our visit to Lindisfarne, Northumbria.)
The allure of the coast: Heimat, Germany (top) and Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK. Photo credits: Paul Scraton and Katrin Schönig.
Another reason the Baltic is special is that it’s the place where my partner grew up. In the past ten years or so she has been taking me and my daughter up there. We are writing new stories for ourselves in a place that was very much a part of her childhood.
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
Now that you’re Wonderlanded with me, I must throw you a Mad Hatter’s tea party. This being Berlin, I will serve beer and bouletten (meat balls), a Berlin specialty, at the big table in our living room. We will listen to music and chat…and the guests will be friends, those who I don’t see enough of because of the way life seems to be. Not only those who are in England, and who I don’t see because of distance, but also those who live in the same city but somehow life gets in the way. But before we sat down for beer and meatballs we would have done a long walk together through the city or perhaps out at the lakes and the forests on the edge.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
Inevitably, you are a different person at 36 years old than at 22, and these changes would have no doubt happened whether I was in Berlin or had stayed in England. And if anything, being with my partner and our child probably had a more profound impact that simply the act of moving away. But I would say that work wise, in my writing and in creating our journal, Elsewhere, living in Berlin has been an endless source of inspiration. The number of interesting places and the stories they contain feels inexhaustible. I don’t think I would have become the writer I am, pursued the projects I am doing, or developed my work in the direction I have, without living in this city for the past decade and a half.
Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass
If you are like me, you will find yourself feeling out of place in your new home and out of place when you return to the old one. But there is nothing wrong with being slightly on the edge of the scene…that’s where the interesting stuff happens.
“I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!”
Paul Scraton’s two short books and the first issue of the new journal he edits, Elsewhere.
Aside from the journal, the first issue of which we are launching this week, I am writing a book about memory, exploration and imagination on the German Baltic coast. As I mentioned, this is the area where Katrin grew up, and so the book combines my own travels and discoveries in the area with the myths and stories of the places along the coast as well as Katrin’s family history. I think coming at these places and stories as an “outsider” gives me a different perspective that informs and shapes the writing. Ultimately everything I am working on right now is concerned with the idea of “place”, and again, I think this interest has developed as a result of never quite feeling I belong wherever I may be…
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Readers, I wonder if you feel like me, that you’ve enjoyed being “elsewhere” with Paul so much you feel a bit bereft now that our “tour” has ended… Do you agree the time went quickly? And what did you make of his Wonderlanded story? Please let us know in the comments. ~ML
STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Paul writes about place.
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Photo credits for opening image (clockwise from top left): Paul Scraton (supplied); image from “A line of wild suprise: Prespa, Greece,” one of the articles on the first issue of Elsewhere; “Alice,” by Jennie Park via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Hutschenreuther Garten Eden Cup & Saucer via Chinacraft.