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La belle Indienne

Mari Laanemets

He is waiting for her. She is amazed when she steps off the bus and sees him there. He is standing behind the red and yellow Stehcafé where he has been killing time and hiding from the wind. She notices that there is nobody standing around the red-legged round tables. These kind of tables you do not find in Tallinn. It was of course a bluff. He wasn't at the station because of her. Strange enough, it only proved the assertion of Hemingway that no harbour would be complete without at least two Estonians. They are sailing around in different parts of the world and sending back articles to the Estonian newspapers. These articles are very popular in Estonia and bring their authors between a dollar and a dollar and thirty cents a column. They take the place occupied by the baseball or football news in American newspapers and are run under the heading of "Sagas of Our Intrepid Voyagers". When the cheque from their last article comes they will sail to another yacht basin and write another saga. They are happy too. It's great to be an Intrepid Voyager.

For a while a young Turkish cousin was working in the corner shop on the street where she had moved on to. He used to work in the evenings when she, at around eleven, went to buy her cigarettes. Eine Ganze, the grandma chuckled every time when he happened to be there. The cousin even invited her for a coffee or to the cinema. Auf eine Mittagsvorführung. Denken Sie nichts, es wird Ihnen nichts passieren. Sie gefallen mir, weil Sie sich unterschieden. Ich wusste gleich, dass Sie nicht von hier sind. Woher kommen Sie eigentlich, Mademoiselle? Indeed, they called her mademoiselle, although they probably didn't speak any French. It just sounded more noble. And she let it be. La belle Indienne.

It is the title of the film I am going to shoot. Hopefully. The last months of working on the script have ended up in crisis: Writing down the episodes from my life in Berlin ­ maybe not too original, but that's what the film is going to be about. I realized that all of them, down to a single episode, are negative. So very unfriendly, almost impolite. I was terrified by my own reflection. Is that what I want to say? I suppose, in a way. I recognized that I was planning not just the film, but a revenge. The film as my futile but deliberate revenge. But a revenge for what? Living in Berlin is not much different than I thought it would be when I arrived here three years ago. Besides, I was conscious about the place I was coming to. Indeed I wanted to come. I really wanted to come. I picked Berlin myself. So it just doesn't seem fair to complain. And I hate complaining too.

My landlord said to me: Wenn etwas ist, dann gleich beschweren. Immer beschweren. It came out that shortly after I moved in, for several weeks, my name-plate was constantly thrown away and I couldn't receive any post or guests. But then to whom should I complain? To complain to my landlord seemed to be absurd. What could he do ­ post a guard next to the bell buttons? Besides there was no real danger. I don't believe the reason was because of my foreign-sounding name. Most probably, the bumpy hand-written nameplate just disturbed somebody's aesthetic sense. Sonst alles gut? Und wenn etwas ist, Du weißt schon, dann gleich beschweren. He is now regularly supervising me. He thinks complaining is everyone's right. Estonians see it differently. Only people of bad character complain.

I say: Guten Morgen.
They reply: Guten Tag.
I: Ich rufe an -
They: Und wie ist ihr Name?
I: L wie Leopold ...
They: L wie Ludwig.
I: Ja, wie Ludwig. A wie Arthur ...
They: A wie Anna.
I: Ja, wie Anna ...

They say something and we agree.

Instead of buchstabieren, I learn to spell in English ­ which is something at school I thought I'd never do. My Spanish friend believes that this way, Germans will approve of her. Well, me too. And the people are at once so much nicer to you. But I know this is cheating. In foreign territory you should speak properly. I force them into the position where they too loose their ground so that we will be on equal footing. I might even have the advantage now. But I do not feel better. This is the response of one without the right language ­ of someone like me in Berlin. Even though my German is not so bad at all. Even if it would be perfect, if I would have no accent, even then there would be things I couldn't say. Pardon me. 1934 the Russian poet Marina Zvetajeva writes in Paris of camarades d'orgueil blessé: Die Angst vor einer Beleidigung, für die es im Fremdenwörterbuch keine Worte gibt. Die Angst vor einer Beleidigung, nicht die vor dem Tod, läßt uns alle die Köpfe einziehen, und die Herausforderung des unsichtbaren Beleidigers lässt manche von uns ihre Köpfe hoch erhoben tragen.

On the days of seminars, when her texts were going to be discussed, instead of using public transportation or bicycling, she would run to the language faculty on Dorotheenstraße located in the middle of the downtown core. She was far from being sporty. It took her 52 minutes from Helmholtzplatz. After which she was so sleepy that no criticism could do her any harm. She was too tired to care.

I'm late. When I arrive, the speeches are already over, the free drinks, if there were any, as well. When I arrive, people are relaxed and amusing themselves on the small terrace. Yet far away I think I hear voices speaking in Estonian. I even think I recognize the silhouettes of the Estonian artists' duo Marko & Kaido. But I am still far off. It could be purely my imagination. Probably it is, but I do not go to investigate. I try to avoid my compatriots. What should I say to them? Should I ask them about Estonia? Or, instead, how do they like Berlin? I can see myself nervously searching for some topic. Or, and this idea makes me even more nervous, they start putting questions on me. What do I do and when am I going to come back? Or, do I plan to stay in Berlin forever? This last question is the one of which I am most afraid. It makes me feel so guilty. I am better off avoiding these encounters (I wonder if the Germans or the French behave like this?).

So I just sneak in. At the bottom of the big staircase I meet Paula. Paula is an unusual Berlin gallerist who is dealing with Eastern European art. Only by now her gallery is closed. Very good, she says. Making a quick round of the exhibition, I think I know why Paula says it's good. But I also think that this is the second time in history that the West is defining the East, and this time we are letting it happen. So even we ourselves begin to believe this fiction. I see the peoples eyes wander from one tired or tormented face to another in the photographs and monitors installed in the room. Poor people everywhere. I feel sick and hope that nobody notices.

As suspicious as she otherwise was, she never thought about what it might mean that the first person she was to meet in Berlin was another Estonian. What Hemingway might not have known, was that these two Estonians probably didn't get along very well. While abroad, Estonians usually do not care much for looking up their fellow countrymen. And when they do meet, they are generally hostile. And, indeed, she never met him again. Only, years after, every time she passes Alexanderplatz at Christmas and sees men standing and eating Currywurst, she always remembers him and herself jumping out of the white-striped Euroline bus. It is the saddest sight she can imagine ­ eating Currywurst at Alex while raindrops fall from the Christmas decorations.
Starship Nummer 7, Seiten 140ff


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