Die Wende

November 30, 2019 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

We all jumped when we heard it. My teacher opened the classroom door and peered out.

Thirty years ago this month, I can still remember every moment.

We heard the loud and joyous exclamation repeated in muffled Flemish from other classrooms. When my teacher rushed out the door, the students in my class began to follow him. I didn’t join them, for one good reason.

I hadn’t understood the sentence.

As celebrations erupted around the school, I tried to work it out. I was four months into a year-long exchange program in Brussels, a city I’d instantly fallen in love with. The languages, however, I was struggling with. Belgium has three: French, Flemish and German, and for that extra challenge they sometimes like to mix them all up in the colourful but impenetrable Bruxellois dialect.

The walk home was equally puzzling. Drivers honked; people hung out of car windows waving and bellowing. The elderly couple who ran the fruit stall slow-danced in the street. It was only when I heard German being sung that the shouted sentence in my high school hallway finally made sense.

My god, had the Berlin Wall come down?

Line of the Berlin Wall

I ran the last few steps. My host parents were standing in their butcher shop with white aprons tied tight, holding a bottle of champagne high enough to touch the smoked hams hanging from the ceiling. Everyone burst into cheers when they saw me. A torrent of Flemish and French surged around my host parents and their customers. The joy was undeniable, but I still needed confirmation, and I needed it in English. I headed upstairs to the lounge room, and the BBC.

I knew next to nothing about politics. Until that point my only political participation had been singing along to punk songs excoriating Margaret Thatcher. But that last year of the 1980’s was an incredible time to land in Europe, with the mass demonstrations and revolutionary fervour sweeping across the continent. Watching footage of protests in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia was utterly invigorating. I was about to turn eighteen, and more than ready to see the world as an adult.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought that home. We’d heard reports of the demonstrations gathering force, but were not quite able to tell the rumours from reality. Watching footage of the West Berliners line the roads with flower and cheers, welcoming the incredulous East Berliners as they streamed across the united city, was a sight I’ll never forget.

I couldn’t shake the spell of that city. Not long after the wall opened, I went to a travel agent. He took one look at the age on my passport and shook his head. It was impossible to find anyone who’d book a seventeen year old on a 750km bus trip from Brussels to Berlin that soon after November 9. What if the wall went back up, and I was trapped there? For some, euphoria was still tempered by suspicion: the shadow of the DDR loomed large.

I settled for the Rhine Valley instead. I spent my eighteenth birthday in Cologne, sneaking into punk clubs and learning German slang beside the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral. I loved my taste of Germany, but the whole time my gaze was on the east, and the promise of Berlin.

That night in November 1989 when I sat cross-legged on my host parents’ floor, watching the news unfold, had sunk hooks deep within me.

They led me to a degree in Germanic Languages and Linguistics, where I studied Nietzsche with scepticism, Goethe with fascination, and Nina Hagen with admiration. The compulsory subjects based on Die Wende, the change of political systems that brought with it the fall of the Berlin Wall, were pure joy to me.

When I finally made it to Berlin, it was even better than I’d anticipated. The city was a revelation.

Berlin street art

On my first trip I went to Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazi book burnings took place. When I was told that Berliners brought candles and pillows every May 10, the anniversary of the burnings, and that they curled up to read their favourite passages from the books that were banned, I knew I would be back.

On my third trip to Berlin I met up with my Dutch pen-pal, and went to a feminist punk festival held in a squat in Kreuzberg where the black coffee was so strong we felt ill and had to go back to the hostel to lie down.

On my fifth trip to Berlin, I rented a flat with an ex-lover who’d flown in from Switzerland. Under a thunderstorm and with sticky glasses of Grand Marnier, he told me I could never be a ‘real writer’ until I’d studied all the French greats of literature. The liqueur left a sweet taste in my mouth; his words did not.

On my seventh trip to Berlin, I landed on the 50th anniversary of the barbed wire being rolled out that would become the Berlin Wall. At midday there was a minute of silence. I watched from my balcony as pedestrians stopped on the footpath with heads bowed. I joined them, honouring not just the people killed trying to cross the wall, but all those whose lives were overshadowed by the enormity of its presence.

On my latest visit I brought my husband. He fell under the spell of the city immediately, connecting, just as I do, to the regeneration and resilience on every street corner.

The landlord of our apartment showed us around. He handed me the keys and a map of the city.

‘Thanks, but this is my eleventh visit. I know this city well.’

He raised his eyebrows.

‘If you love Berlin so much, why don’t you just live here then?’

I didn’t have an answer. It’s a question I ask myself often, every time I visit.

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To the hundred and more

December 31, 2017 at 4:48 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Rilke

 

My muse loves December.

I’m a disciplined writer. I can spend whole days locked in my writing studio, breaking my focus only to brew more coffee or have a quick Ike and Tina Turner shimmy to get the blood circulating. I work on my novel, short stories, memoir and audio fiction. But in December, my muse demands more. She sits on the corner of my desk (she’s about ten centimetres high, redheaded and if you look carefully, ever so slightly cross-eyed) and urges me to write more, edit more, submit more, and aim high.

Every year.

And you don’t say no to her, believe me.

I feel buoyant stepping into January; I’ve spilled so much ink this year. 2017 saw me reach the milestone of 100 stories published, performed or produced for radio. I performed at festivals both here and interstate with more lined up for next year, talked to ABC producers about broadcasting more of my writing, slid my Sarah Award for International Audio Fiction onto my shelf next to my snakeskins and skulls, consistently earned pay checks for my ink (no mean feat in the creative industries), and have several new pieces coming out in 2018. Before the bells chime midnight, in fact, I will also have submitted two new audio stories and one long fiction piece based on my April visit to Berlin, one of the most influential cities in my personal history.

gold-solstice-short-story-rijn-collins‘Gold’, my 100th story (read here)

 

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‘Akathisia’ in River Teeth Journal (read here)

This year has also seen…my tenth visit to Berlin, the first time showing my Wolf around the city he also fell in love with, the thirteenth time I’ve sat with loved ones over martinis and sushi at Zaza’s on Kastanienalle, and the first time I’ve ever smelled smoke on a flight and seen the attendants literally running through the cabin. And the last time, fingers crossed.

There was my fifth visit to Reykjavik, adding to the 35,000 words of my novel set there, seven Icelandic ponies with snow-dusted manes, three pages of spells about elves and juniper berries under moonlight, many shrieks when I forgot about the sulphur stench of hot water in the shower, and the countless times I squeezed the hands of my Wolf and beautiful Lisa, whispering ‘I can’t believe you’re both here with me.’

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Siglufjörður, northern Iceland

 

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Pankow, Berlin

Before we hit the snow there was Italy with Lisa, and six nights with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and alley cats to throw prosciutto out to through a stained glass kitchen window. There were so many glasses of sickly sweet limoncello that the smell now makes me wince, dozens of hairpin turns weaving down the hill tops of Positano that made us wince further, and the man in Rome who was so busy applauding my dress and high boots that he walked into a lamp post.

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Positano, Italy

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Temple of the Vestal Virgins, Rome

2017 graced me with twelve months in my new home in the west of Melbourne, and two years with those I share it with, the love of my life and his beautiful cub. There were trips to Albury, Wangaratta, Woodend, the Dandenongs and Tasmania, with wallabies, speakeasys, Art Deco architecture, champagne, new writers to chat to and new stories to tell.

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The Wolf and Connie, our vintage caravan, Tasmania

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Beautiful Hobart, Tasmania

Ah, it seems that’s her cue. My muse just tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to the open articles on the Stasi and trichotillomania on my screen, and tilted her head towards my keyboard. I’ve been told, people. Back to work it is.

Wherever in the world you are, I wish you all the best for the coming year, and as always, I wish you the most wondrous of stories.

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Smiling like a honey cake horse

December 30, 2013 at 4:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Grinsen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd – To grin like a honey cake horse (German idiom)

I love placing my boot against the wheel, and kicking the new cycle into being: December is my favourite month. When else can I indulge my taste for nostalgia, and review a whole year’s worth of diaries without flinching?

2013 held six days in Russia, three meals in the Literary Cafe with bowls of violet borsch washed down with vodka, and a fair few tears shed in the library where Pushkin died. Visit to Berlin: my ninth. Hours spent on the balcony of my apartment in the old East Berlin imagining moving my life there: inestimable.

Berlin balcony 2

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Year since I first lived in Brussels: twenty-four. Years since I last lived there: seven. Number of hand-on-heart-moments walking down my old street there, Rue des Chandeliers: five or six. Number of penpals filling our Prague apartment with red lipstick, punk music and bottles of Bohemian Sekt champagne: four.  Our amazing holiday then concluded with visits to three of Kafka’s old houses, eleven  potential band names, and six seconds of twerking in front of the astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square.

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The year also held nine hours of tattooing, countless swear words, and three blood red Louisiana swamp flowers curling around my right arm. New pieces of taxidermy acquired: one.  German classes: twelve. Number of awkward banjoed up German country songs I sang in class: one, and that was more than enough, believe me. Gigs in Melbourne watching stellar blues bands: thirteen. A blues dancing workshop of eight hours left me with a multitude of new dance moves and many aching muscles. New dances attempted: two, Balboa and Shag. Beats per minute of the latter: 190. Number of bras needed whilst dancing it: two. New cocktail frocks to dance it in: three. Ok, four. Current count of high heels now snaking in a line around my bedroom: 31. And climbing.

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The Year of the Snake has also been deeply, richly rewarding for my ink. There were twenty-eight stories submitted, with eight accepted, seven still pending and five emails from editors with personalised feedback. My work was included in two exhibitions in Melbourne, as well as one festival in Chicago. Number of mulled wines before I was ready to climb onto the stage with a cello accompaniment and read my story: three. Placements in short story competitions: two, for the ABC and the University of New Orleans. Mail from a literary agent in the US complimenting my work: one. Exclamations when I opened and read it: uncountable. Number of short stories written and in consideration for a collection of my work: over one hundred.

this is the story

Excitement at stepping into 2014 and all the stories it’ll contain: inexpressible.

But lord knows, I’m going to try and express it anyway…it’s my job, after all.

May you step into the new year with a straight spine, warm heart, and ink on your fingertips.

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The skulking wolves keep calling

March 29, 2012 at 10:09 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

If you chat with me for an hour, several things are likely to become apparent. I’m prone to ink stains on my fingers, I’m quite partial to moustaches, I count things at inappropriate times and whenever I can I jump straight on a plane and head to Berlin. 

It’s probably best not to ask me about the moustaches.

Oh, and I write. Often. Fervently. Black ink. Red notebooks. Big smile.

In this blog I’ve been tracing the steps I’ve taken overseas in search of ink: chasing Viking sagas in Iceland, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath in New York, and Kafka in Berlin. I love this last city so much, and it carries such literary weight that forgive me, but I had to split the entry up.

Near Potsdamer Platz is a collection of museums and galleries whose names delight the hell out of me: the Kupferstichkabinett and the Gemäldegalerie, for example. Try saying that after a dirty martini. I spent hours wandering around the complex, standing fascinated in front of a medieval exhibit from the Black Plague – a skull and crossbones that had been hung above the door of victims, and a horrific black beak-like structure doctors were forced to wear, stuffed full of herbs soaked in vinegar to protect against inhaling the poison.

In the cabinet next to it was a massive book, its pages crawling with tiny curves of ink. I was drawn to it before I even knew what it was, but as soon as I read the words ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ my fingers reached for my notebook. This edition of the Hexenhammer, or ‘Hammer of the Witches’, was a 1487 version of the notorious witch hunting treatise that saw so many hanged on the cobblestones where I’d regularly drunk my coffee. Spellbinding, with no pun intended.

Then I turned, and saw two beautiful names – Jacob and Wilhelm.

If you’ve ever huddled under a blanket and scrunched up your eyes at the thought of a skulking wolf, or a cackling hag strewing gingerbread on a mossy forest floor, you’ve probably read the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

And if you’ve spent seven years, like me, in university lecture halls attending linguistic lectures, then you’d know the influence their academic research and findings have had on the field of historical linguistics, particularly concerning Germanic languages.

That sounded a lot more exciting in my head, I swear.

Just think of them as the ones who brought you Cinderella (Aschenputtel), Snow White (Sneewittchen), Rumpelstiltskin (Rumpelstilzchen) and Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen), and maybe that’ll seem less word nerdy. And lord, doesn’t everything sound better in German?

So to see an original copy of their Deutsches Wörterbuch from the mid-1850’s, held open with a long red ribbon as a bookmark, was surely something special.

And yes, another reason why I constantly follow the gingerbread trail back to this amazing city.

I could tell you this will be my last entry on Berlin, but we’d both know I was lying.

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Kafka’s balcony, with lemongrass

March 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Kafka’s been watching me sleep.

I’ve scribbled strange lines in my little red notebook over the years – some involving Finnish cowboys, taxidermy snakes, and my inexplicable phobia of crumpets –   but this remains one of my favourites.  

I’d collapsed on the couch of the holiday apartment I’d rented, after a killer long haul flight from Australia. I’d flung the balcony doors open to the summer evening just before I dozed, and when I roused myself and sat up I saw, painted on shutters on the other side of Cothenienstrasse, the intense expression of Franz Kafka staring up at me.

No wonder I’d been having nightmares.

  

Berlin is one of my favourite places on earth. About once a year I pack up my red notebooks and head over there, and each time I do I’m less certain why I leave it. I go there for the glorious language – truly the most beautiful on earth, pure seduction. I go there for the regeneration the city constantly exudes, for the smell of the U-Bahn and the feel of the Berlin Wall under my fingertips, Nina Hagen CDs and Goethe books, for their huge cheese and pickle breakfasts and the ivy that covers many a crumbling building and holds it all together.

 

But this time, I went for Kafka.

I’ve been counting the steps I’ve taken across the world in search of ink, having so far written posts on Iceland and New York. In Berlin, it’s hard to choose one writer in a city that held Bertolt Brecht, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Christa Wolf, Vladimir Nabokov, the Brothers Grim and yes, even John le Carré. Where the latter’s concerned, however, I have to admit I sat in the café opposite Checkpoint Charlie not so much because he used to watch the exchange of spies there as he worked on ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,’ but more because they do the best apple strudel in Berlin.

 

 

 

The protagonist in my novel has crooked teeth, red boots and an obsessive compulsive disorder involving a Kafka short story. Come on, I’m not going to give it all away…I want you to read the damn thing, after all.

So to wake that first day and find his dark brows glaring my way, seemed a fitting sign.

One sunny afternoon I made my way to Muthesiusstrasse in Berlin’s southwest, where Kafka used to live. It’s a beautiful leafy street in a middle class suburb, and as I hadn’t been able to find the exact address, I did what any writer doing research would do: I walked slowly down the entire length of one side, crossed over, and walked back. If I told you this was so I could know my feet had walked where his had, you’d see that obsession is a trait I’m somewhat acquainted with. But then again, what writer isn’t?

I sat at a café on Muthesiusstrasse and worked on my novel, red book and black ink on a green street. I wondered if Kafka had sat on an ivy covered balcony to write, and if he’d ever come to this café. And I’ll be honest: I waited for something surreal and absurdist to happen, so I could pin a Kafkaesque moment down on paper.

All I could manage was a surly waitress in koala slippers, who plonked down in front of me that most traditional of German dishes: pad Thai.

You take what you can get, after all.

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To the year of the cat

December 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

As someone who’s kept a diary since they were seven years old, I look at the closing of a year with the same reverence that others reserve for finding truffles or unreleased Nirvana tracks. So here is what’s come to my attention in 2011.

My research for stories can lead me to literally eat paper ripped from my notebook, investigate the fine art of taxidermy,  the last days of Kafka, and the marketing of 80’s lollies, learn Finnish terms of endearment, and spend far too long doing online personality tests, where I was told ‘You are reclusive to the point of being sociopathic.’ Indeed.

I feel so much better now that my friends and I have an apocalypse plan. I can’t reveal all the details, but it involves martinis, pool ponies, and cyanide teeth.

Old school rockabilly ruled my i-pod this year: Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, early Elvis…the hardcore punk took a step into the background, and hell, did it scowl about it.

The moment I speared a chopstick into a dumpling at my first yum cha, I couldn’t believe I’d lived without it for so long.

Having your words raked over the coals at a writers’ workshop makes the spine straight, but the stories so much richer. I resolve to organise more in 2012; hold me to it, ok?

I can never read too many Rainer Maria Rilke poems, or Vladimir Nabokov short stories.

Being brought a glass of Moet et Chandon champagne in the spa, and then handfed caviar from the outstretched fingers of one of my closest friends, Jessica Tremp, as we readied ourselves for our French dinner party whilst singing to Serge Gainsbourg, is truly one of life’s finest moments.

The Finnish language is inexpressibly beautiful, impossibly complicated, and utterly unforgettable. How could you live without a language that has a word for ‘bouncy cushion satisfaction’ – Hyppytyynytyydytys?

Every single time I head back to Berlin, there’s a flat in Cotheniusstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg waiting for me with lobster coloured walls, a balcony to write on overlooking the cobblestones, and every ‘Mad Max’ movie dubbed into German: Seine Frau haben sie fast umgebracht. Seinen besten Freund getötet. Seine einzige Waffe ist sein 600 PS starker Turbo-Wagen!

I am capable of producing characters who train cats for flash mob performances, indulge in trichotillomania, cheat at card games during a thunderstorm in Estonia, point their rifle at their wife while kangaroo hunting, get paid to seductively lift their petticoat in alleyways by their university professor, hang by their tails from the treetops in Berlin whilst philosophising, think they can control traffic lights, and drink martinis at the Lithuanian Redhead Appreciation Society. And this year, only once did I write a story with Elvis in it. I’m getting better, I think.

It’s never too early for a Bloody Mary breakfast.

Spontaneity is not my strong point. Waking up one morning in Berlin, however, and turning to the glorious Gretchen Cello to ask ‘Babe, do you want to go to Poland today?’, unearthed all manner of richness. Returning after sunset with a smattering of Polish words, a damn fine pair of red polka dot high heels, a plan to visit Krakow next time I’m in Europe, and bellies full of pierogi ruski smothered in sour cream and salt, made it a day to remember.

Lastly, I sent numerous stories out into the world, and my acceptance rate is still outweighing my rejections. With writing accepted by Metazen, Necessary Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, Defenestration, Paroxysm Press, No Printer Zone, Untitled, and recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and My Audio Universe in the United States, I can rest my pen in the spine of my little red notebook with a smile.

To 2012…may it be full of ink to spill, rockabilly to dance to, and more than one dirty martini raised in celebration.

And probably at least one Elvis story. I’m trying, people…I really am.

 

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Three little splashes of ink

September 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

German keyboards are crazy. In Berlin I’d head to my favourite internet cafe on Kastanienallee, make small talk with the owner in my less than shiny German, and head into the back room with a tiny bottle of Rotkäppchen champagne to check my email.

Little Red Riding Hood champers…sometimes, I know I only try things because the words sound good.

Damn writers.

Halfway through my month in Europe I worked my way around the rearranged letters on the German keyboard to find that three splashes of my ink had landed in lovely places while I was away.

The wonderful people at Lowestoft Chronicle have just released issue #7, and have included my story ‘I like your deer’s moustache, and other Lithuanian tales.’  If that title in any way intrigues you (I swear, sometimes the things that fall out of my pen surprise even me), head on over and check out the stellar work in this edition.

Metazen is a fabulous journal that publishes new writing every day; you can look through their archives for hours and still be entranced. They’ve published my story ‘The fig seed fountain’, so go take a peek if you have a few minutes.

Thirdly, a mix engineer in New York contacted me about my ‘Street of the Candlesticks’ piece, performed as part of the City Nights project on Radio National here in Australia. He’s working on a collaboration between musicians and writers, and asked for permission to incorporate text from my story with music and sound effects.

I had a shy little smile when I stepped back into the Berlin sun after that.

And I had plenty of Red Riding Hood to celebrate, believe me.

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