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The cover of Aurelia's recently published book of poems

The cover of Aurelia’s recently published book of poems in Romanian

Subtly overwhelmed by the realization of my graduation, I, like my graduating class fellows, have embarked upon the journey of exploring the world of “what if.” Amidst the swirl of mixed emotions signalling the end of another fruitful academic year at Bard College Berlin, I found myself caught within an entanglement which marks a fixed and certain end, and at the same time announces an exciting, but yet unknown beginning. Potential anchors in this unrelenting “self-search” vary from one graduate to another, but beyond these differences, I harbor a wish to discover the promising land of “what if” by finding the trajectory of those who have already been in my situation, but have followed their own inspiring path. I found out about the “road taken” by an alumna of our university, Aurelia Cojocaru, currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, publishing under the pen name Aura Maru. The following interview is an interesting glimpse into the marked stations that Aurelia passed on her path.      

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Le Beau Danger by René Frölke

Le Beau Danger by René Frölke

This year I went to two Berlinale films, both in the Forum (young experimental) section, both with a literary twist. One is the experimental pseudo-documentary Le Beau Danger by René Frölke which (quite literally) follows Romanian-Jewish writer Norman Manea in his public and private life. The other is a tragicomedy about and featuring French writer Michel Houellebecq as he is kidnapped, which is supposed to explain Houellebecq’s mysterious disappearance in 2011; the film by Guillaume Nicloux is unsurprisingly called L’enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq). In fact, despite the obvious differences (of genre and personae of the writers), I was baffled by the coincidences. Both Manea and Houellebecq, whose work is internationally acknowledged and translated, and who get a lot of attention from media, appear, in some moments, as victims (Houellebecq) or as implicit critics (Manea) of this very system.

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Paths to Publishing logo

Conference logo

Have you heard about the latest statistics regarding the number of published writers in Iceland? According to them, every year one in ten Icelanders “gives birth” to a book. Imagine an editorial paradise. One wakes up and thinks “maybe I should write another novel”. A few intense nights and the manuscript can be ready. Oh, and publication shouldn’t be an issue. One has a button on one’s desk (or, to be up-to-date, an app), one clicks/pushes and… in a few hours the book is on the shelves in bookstores, in the national library and so on. I cannot make any value judgments as I know little about Icelandic literature, but did they also count how many critics there should be to deal with such deluge?

For us mortals publishing takes some more effort. Many probably simply get lost in the lianas of the system, in the ping-pong between agent and editor (if they get to that point), or, worse, in the “slash pile”, this resting place of letters that will “never ever” be answered by the agent (moment of silence). But, publishers, agents and editors are convinced, there is a chance for those who don’t quit. With some knowledge of the system and patience—and a good manuscript to begin with, which seems easy, doesn’t it?—one can awaken the Icelander in oneself. In October I went to a mini-conference entitled “Paths to Publishing”, co-organized by Dialogue Books and The Reader Berlin and held at Kantine ExRotaprint, to find out just that, but then again, also more.

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Eugene Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky at Bard College Berlin

All my dreams of inventing a time machine and going back to witness the (in)famous Avant-Garde had long ago faded, when the Russian-American poet Eugene Ostashevsky came to Bard College Berlin. He came and opened his reading with a poem of the Russian “absurdist” Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), whom he has translated. “The four-legged crow”, which is the poem he read, starts like this—“There once lived a fourlegged crow. Properly speaking, it had five legs, but this isn’t worth talking about”—and it only gets better. I don’t know how Kharms read his poems, but Ostashevsky’s intransigent, almost violent diction is something Kharms himself would have probably liked to borrow. By contrast, another translator of Kharms, Matvei Yankelevych, who also seems to have the habit of opening his readings with a poem or two from the eccentric poet, sounds much less radical, at times paradoxically commonsensical, when reading Kharm’s hallucinatory vignettes…

Although Kharms’s spirit remained hovering above us, which was probably the intention anyways, the purpose of Ostashevsky’s own reading was not quite a “dadaistic shock” (Walter Benjamin’s expression).

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Löwenkämpfer statue. Photo by Heidi Kontkanen

Löwenkämpfer statue (photo by Heidi Kontkanen)

Our series of Berlin-revelatory interviews with ECLA of Bard faculty and staff continues. This time our guide through Berlin is Prof. Matthias Hurst, who has been a member of the faculty at ECLA of Bard since 2003, teaching various courses in film, but also literature and philosophy. We took the chance to find out more about Matthias Hurst’s life in Berlin, his insights and suggestions on how to enlarge our experience of the city and, last but not least, his ideas on the various facets of the ‘film capital.’

1) Where are you originally from and how long have you been living in Berlin?

I was born in Heidelberg (in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg) and for a long time I lived in or around this wonderfully romantic town. I also studied at the University of Heidelberg and worked there as a lecturer. I started working at ECLA in 2003 and moved to Berlin in 2005.

2) In which district do you live? Tell us a bit about it. Why did you decide to live there?

I live in Pankow/Rosenthal, not far away from ECLA of Bard. To be close to our campus was one of the reasons to move into this neighborhood. It’s a quiet district with lots of nice, clean houses, surrounded by nice, clean gardens with accurately mowed bright green lawns and nice colorful flowers, little bright white fences around the gardens … It’s creepy, like in a David Lynch film, you know, when there is something bizarre and evil lurking right underneath the neat, polished surface of middle class order and tidiness, something vicious hidden within petit bourgeois smugness. Maybe that’s another reason why I have decided to live here …

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Shelf of ECLA of Bard student

Shelf of ECLA of Bard student

 “The decoration represents a rural setting, but nonetheless truly agreeable.”
(Molière, Prologue to “Le Malade Imaginaire”)

Only mid?September, and it was already here: in classrooms, dorms, the dining hall and the library, I heard the frequency of blessings-to-excuse-me grow. Supermarkets nearby increased their lemon, ginger, garlic and “Erkältungstee” (“Cold” Tea) supplies, and rumors had it that the boom was due to ECLA of Bard students, who, if they hadn’t gotten the cold already, decided to go prophylactic. Some blamed it on the zig-zag-shaped temperature curve in Berlin (as moody as ever), others ? on nature’s dominance over even the dormitory heating system. “Achoo” finally became a more popular word than “soul,” “freedom,” “motif” and “representation,” not to mention “weekend” and “lunch.” Only mid?September, and we took the “red fluffy blankets,” which our Residential Life Coordinator Zoltan Helmich was offering, and we wrapped them around our bodies as life vests.

But these were just the first signs, the first evil amulets that the fall flu (or was it a cold? or did I just walk in the rain? or did I eat too much ice-cream?) brandished before our eyes. We shook our ginger and garlic wreaths back, but, alas, it needed some victims. I was witness to one of the first cases, a.k.a. the official opening of the fall cold/flu season.

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As intelligent and emotional (well, for the most part) beings, we humans tend to hold on to things. We collect objects that remind us of places, people and experiences – or in some cases, even ourselves. In college, however, the physical load of things we keep is significantly reduced. What is it then that college students keep in their rooms – and more interestingly – display on their shelves? One of the common phrases, of unknown origin, says that we can learn a great deal about someone by looking at their living space. The truth of this saying I leave for you to determine. All I can say is that the heterogeneity of our students’ shelves definitely lives up to the diversity of their cultures, backgrounds and personalities.

Click here to see the photo gallery!
Sankt Oberholz

Mac users at Sankt Oberholz (Photo by –lucky cat– @Flickr)

As you enter Sankt Oberholz, the most conspicuous café at Rosenthaler Platz, you notice, on all the walls, neatly printed menus. This is a commercial realm, you think. If you turn your head to the right, you see, under the huge menus, never-ending bar tables and, throning on the bar stools, a population of Mac owners. This is a place where one comes to work, you think. If you turn your head to the left, you see a population of PC owners, mixed with a chatting population. This is a place where you can work, you are assured. Meanwhile, your latte, in a tall glass, is ready and you pay. This is a place where English is the first language––you understand. You look for the WiFi password and then notice a glass for tips, in which you spot a paper with a motivating text. “Tipping is not a city in China,” the text said in 2012 (the phrase dates back to 1975 and is attributed to Earl Wilson, I now find out). The current motivator is a drawing of a fish on the bottom of the glass that begs: “Save me, I can only swim in $.”

A film about Sankt Oberholz would have to start with a close-up on this glass, just as the novel of the French writer Patrick Grainville Lumière du Rat starts with the insides of a chicken that the main characters are disemboweling. Pardon the simile, but I think this glass for tips shows what Sankt Oberholz is from the inside(s): a commercial place, yes, but humorous enough to make you forget about it.

The ritual continues. Because most of the tables are quite busy at this, and at any, time you climb the almost spiral staircase, careful not to spill the hot beverage. Once upstairs, you walk in between tables with the same care, while also hunting for a free spot. It is hard to divide your attention. It is very hard. It is hard because it is also dangerous. To convince you that this is not a commercial: our fellow student and blog writer Jelena burned her arm quite badly a couple of years ago while walking upstairs, carrying a glass of tea (luckily, she seems to have a healthy attitude towards the Sankt Oberholz mark). Finally, you feel like a hero when you find a free spot at a table, which you now share with some other 5 or more people. The next step is to locate the extension cords under the table (they are, luckily, ubiquitous, but, unluckily, dusty and crowded with plugs of all species). Here, upstairs, besides the dominant population of Mac users, you can find some people with books. Around, a lot of work meetings, a lot of Skyping. Facebook-flâneurs.

It is not surprising that the place looks like a field of laptops (imagine a field of solar panels) rather than a café. Sankt Oberholz was one of the first venues in Berlin to offer free WiFi. And it worked – tourists, expats, coffee addicts, laptop owners of all kinds gathered like bees to honey. Generally, it is thought of as a very hipster, very techie place. But, again, there is some irony and humor in the way Sankt Oberholz treats its not being quite a typical café (and it is perhaps this that makes it feel so hipster). I already mentioned its humorous attitude towards commerce; I can only add that a typical bill from Sankt Oberholz quotes the title of a webcomic by Sarah Burrini: “Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof” (“Life Ain’t No Ponyfarm”). And, even though minimalistic, the café has some eclectic elements which read almost like a comment on the too eclectic Berlin cafés. For instance, nothing connects the neatly printed menus on the walls on the ground floor with the bizarre bathrooms upstairs, where one can find awkwardly shaped yellow soap on a stick (apparently, a Korean invention), while an absurd radio station plays in the background; nothing but a staircase. The café also has a funny website on which they post, among other things, pictures and descriptions of the objects lost/found in the café. One entry in November 2012 begins: “Somebody forgot an inscribed napkin. The napkin is 16 x 8 cm. It looks exactly like those napkins we use at the café. Somebody wrote on it, “1745772xxx for the cute bartender with the black shirt.” […] We don’t know when this napkin was forgotten, maybe last night already. Since then we had three cute bartenders with a black shirt working”.

I have been trying to look for a rational explanation as to why, in some historical periods of ECLA of Bard’s existence, Sankt Oberholz has been the alternative reading room. Nay, the alternative ECLA – students and sometimes professors seemed to be able to spend days in a row in the café, feeding on nothing but lattes and cappuccinos while reading or writing.

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