April 22nd, 2005

operesque

Habitus

Moving house shakes you up and prompts insights into your life. This week I've moved house. Not a great distance, just a kilometer to the south and east within the Berlin district of Friedrichshain, from the Karl-Marx-Allee to the Simon-Dach Strasse. But that kilometer changes everything. It trades old people for young people, economic depression for economic boom, car-domination for bike and tram domination, Mexican and Greek restaurants for Thai and Japanese ones, and Stalinism for the small-scale avant-capitalist funk of fleapit cinemas, headshops, and skatewear boutiques.

So I've been thinking about psychogeography this week. I've been thinking about how I assemble the same sort of environment around me wherever I live: I have a personal culture, an aesthetic, habitus. It goes into boxes and comes out of boxes, the cardboard boxes I move my books and records and clothes in, or the satellite boxes I buy to tune in the internet and the only TV channel I watch, french-language Arte. Different vessels, but the same wine: I now capture Arte as a digital signal from the TV tower rather than on cable, but it's the same Arte. I now get my DSL streamed from the TV tower too, but I'm hitting the same websites. And I now have a new apartment on a new street, but it's basically "my apartment" -- blended, of course, with "Hisae's apartment", consisting of her graphic design books, her rabbit, her smoking area out on the balcony, her Japanese foodstuffs, the desk where she does her German language exercises, the computer she uses to surf a set of Japanese websites quite different from the ones I'm hitting, although they're brought in on the same signal.

On Monday I took the tram that passes our door up to Prenzlauer Allee to rent a van. The tram took me with surprising suddenness into areas I'd never seen. As soon as it passed Frankfurter Allee we were in a series of run-down working class suburbs where unemployed men sat on benches looking grim, businesses all seemed to have closed down, women pushed prams, and huge 1970s housing blocks attempted to inject a little colour with rainbow murals painted on their facades. This "north-eastern ring" district just went on and on until we hit Prenzlauer Promenade. Driving in the van I also saw a Berlin I never see, a place of heavy traffic, stressed people, ugly roads. (This is one of the reasons I have never owned a car, by the way: cars make you see the ugly side of your city and the ugly side of people.) I can't tell you how good it felt to return the van, take the tram back through that grim, depressed north-eastern corridor and re-enter the funky "bubble district" where I live, an environment I feel fit and fitted for in an almost Darwinian sense (if, perhaps, a few summers too old).

The only time this part of Friedrichshain feels alien is at weekends, when its nightlife cranks up a few notches and the place is invaded by "bridge and tunnel people" from god-knows-where, people with different faces and an air of drunken menace about them, people who stop you to ask directions, people who have slightly-too-pale skin and slightly-too-beady eyes. But most of the time what strikes me about this district is what struck me about Chinatown in New York, or the King's Road in Chelsea when I lived there, or the Tokyo districts I know and love. It's really remarkable how different districts, and even different streets within districts, have such a defined, distinct quality, a habitus. By some self-filtering, self-censoring action, poor people stay out of rich districts, old people stay out of young districts, uncool people stay out of cool districts, and so on. What's more, you can take just a few steps away from the main drag and be in a totally different world, as if you've crossed an invisible barrier. I think of the distinction between Oxford Street and Soho: totally different people with different mindsets, yet it's incredibly rare to see "Oxford Street people" wandering down Berwick Street. Why would they go there? They've come to see big department stores. Their routines, the habitual routes they take through cities, are as rigidly fixed as mine are. They only change them when some disaster, diversion or displacement forces them to take a different route. And, like me, they peer with astonishment at streets they barely knew existed, and people shockingly different from themselves. Appalled, enthralled, filled with the mixed feelings and slipping glimpses that difference engenders, we stray off the beaten track for a moment before returning to our customary habitus, which is to say our customary blindness.