Surfing in Berlin

Written by Jakob Straub

I'm on my way to visit my parents over the holidays. As I'm walking down the stairs, I cannot help but notice a surfboard standing in the hallway. It's a huge brown cardboard parcel with the name of a surf shop or board manufacturer printed all over it. Also, there's the transparent bag for the packing list and delivery note, where the contents are clearly listed as one surfboard and one leash. The address seems to be right, yet the recipient's name matches none of the people living in my building. I immediately fantasize about how the board will still be standing here upon my return and I might claim it for myself.

In no way am I a surfer. It's only that I became interested in surfing this summer through several surf films I watched. I meant to try it out but didn't have any opportunity, or didn't seize one, depending on how you look at it. I ended up visiting a friend in Berlin.

The journey is six and a half hours, and I take the late train, riding it into the night straight to Berlin. The settling darkness outside begins to close out the outside world as the lighting in the compartment flickers on and the windows show reflections of the inside. I love the contemplative feel to it. It's like I'm riding one endless tunnel, as if I'm traveling along a direct line. I step on a train and am exchanging one city with another, there is nothing in between but a time line and this ride, like one long subway ride. Watching my reflection in the window, the cheeks hollowed in, the night outside puts large shadows under my eyes and shows me my face the way I want it to see. In the darkness where my eyes should be, my imagination of the landscape outside is whooshing by silently. I listen to nine inch nails with "right where it belongs" on my headphones to emphasize the moment.

What is the purpose of my visit? What is my purpose? The last time, I just hung around at a friend's place. I worked a bit on a short story, which to this day I still haven't finished. And I copied a note I had left on a yellow post-it during an earlier visit. "Kitchen, noun: a place for communal gathering, where pantry roaches meet the smoky ones." Of course, I stuck it on their kitchen wall. And it feels as if this story's only purpose is to provide a context where I can put that thought.

There are NIN concert tickets in my pocket, the main reason for my visit. I like visiting Berlin more than actually living there. I once said that in Berlin, no one would take offense if you went shopping and were standing in line at the check-out with curlers in your hair. Which just goes to say that you can find probably anything in Berlin. In turn, this poses a problem: the diversity of choices, the abundance of cultural activities, the endless possibilities all give you the impression there is always something going on, and you're bound to miss it. You feel guilty for not seizing the opportunities. That's naturally just one way of looking at it, yet it became my point of view during the two years I lived there.

This one time, Michael, a friend of mine, came to visit me. He was checking in on me, because apparently I had given off the impression of a small boy lost in the big city. We used to be close, so when he had gotten little or no word from me for a while, he decided to come over despite his loathing for big cities. He was studying medicine in Freiburg, the city where I live now.

I knew him from school, where we were best friends and saw each other every day. He had this dream of being a surf teacher on Hawaii one day. He also loved rock climbing, a sport he frequently practiced. Sometimes he showed me clips from surf movies or pictures of rock climbers hanging at extreme angles from a mountainside. He had this intense fascination for what he was doing that I admired, mainly because I lacked it myself. When we talked on the phone on Sunday afternoons, I had just crawled out of bed or finished breakfast, knowing the first thing he had done at eight in the morning was to jog a few kilometers.

When he visited me in Berlin, I had just dropped out of university after two semesters to become a kindergarten teacher. A move that must have seemed strange to someone as focused and living his life to the fullest. How to explain my goals in life to him? I thought quitting my academic career allowed me more time to write, but wasn't even confident enough to talk openly about it. He hated being delayed or stuck with nothing to do; when I was at work, he went out and took photographs of the city. Photography was another of his hobbies, and on a good day, he went through several rolls of film.

Michael died in a car crash in 2004. He and a friend were on their way to go rock climbing in France. His friend was driving and had a short black-out behind the wheel when they were passing through a construction site en route in Switzerland. He lost control of the car and they eventually hit a concrete wall. Michael was asleep in the passenger seat and was killed instantly. He was 23.

It was only after his death that I learned the main reason for his visit had been his worries about me, and we had in fact not grown as much apart as I perceived. To come to terms with this realization, I meant to write about his funeral for a while; it was the first in which I had taken part in my life. I had thrown both a flower and dirt on his casket, and for a moment I remained standing before his open grave, bits of dirt still clinging to my left hand. I looked down, and the grave became a tunnel, and I was alone. Then the moment passed. It comes back to me as I'm riding into the night.

I'm staying at Stefan's place again in Berlin. He really managed to work the city to his advantage as he's currently applying at several movie colleges at once. He wants to become a director, and Berlin is probably the best city for that in Germany. I sit and watch him fine-cut his second short film. The way I see it, it's about a little girl lost in a train station. She's deaf, so she makes up her own explanations for what's happening in the world around her. Stefan shows me different cuts of several scenes and asks me which I like best. When I take my pick, he points out the flaws in it, and suddenly I see them, too. I get a notion of how easy it is to get sidetracked or plain lost in this. They had over ten hours of raw material filmed for a short film which is intended to be no longer than fifteen minutes. The more people he includes in the project and asks for their opinions about cutting decisions, the more will the unfinished product be de-constructed by talk. He gets more tense with each pointless thing being pointed out, and I try to answer his striving for perfection with strongly subjective opinions relying on a gut-feeling.

I think in a good movie, no matter of what length, the cuts flow into one another; even if they're rapid, harsh, and abrupt, they're still smooth in the way that they make the whole film work. You might notice them, but they seem natural. That takes a lot of effort, and a lot of practice. It reminds me of the surf movies I have seen: riding waves on top of a board seems so effortless, as if you needn't put anything into it. Yet you'll fall off countless times before your ride that first wave standing up. Your practice is all discipline.

To me, writing is discipline as well. You have to do it. Those sentences may seem smooth and easily crafted, but you don't know how long one had to sit still while sanding them down. Do your dry-land exercises routinely before you begin to experiment with riding the tip of your board. What so greatly attracted me to surfing was the spirit of it: you step into liquid and are suddenly immersed in it. You're hooked. What's the point of riding waves other than pure fun? Why stress yourself ? find a board that suits you and do whatever you want with it and on it; a point that contests and the world of professional surfing seem to be missing. Take Kelly Slater: the man who has won the world championship several times over is said to have a contract with the sea to serve him perfect waves just when he needs them. He must be connected to the water spiritually. I think it must the the same when you're hanging on a rock cliff, looking out for the next hold. You're at one with the mountain. At least that's how Michael used to communicate it to me whenever he talked about it.

I loved the water as a child. You couldn't get me out of it, not even if my lips were blue and my teeth chattering. As I got older I went swimming less and less, because I grew conscious of my body, especially when being around other people half-clad in ill-fitting swimsuits. Over time, I lost the connection with water as an element. Not the best precondition to become a surfer. I should feel more at home among my words, but somehow I don't. After a day at the beach, you come home sunburned, salt drying on your skin, stoked, I can spend my nights alone with my keyboard, but it's not the same.

The last time I saw Michael was here in Freiburg. I was walking into town with two friends and we walked past a caf? where you can sit at outside tables in the sun during the summer months. He was sitting there at one of them with a friend. I raised my arm after I noticed him staring at me, only I mistook him for his brother, because he had cut his hair real short. I realized a few minutes later it had been him actually and I should have gone over to say hello. I didn't, even though my friends pointed it out. We never had a chance to talk about the incident, though I always meant to apologize. This winter, I'm walking to work most days, and I pass the caf? and that table every time.