Letter from Berlin: In the Cut
February 12, 2013 | by Zeke Turner
One morning my first summer in Berlin, I woke up alone in a park with a piece of sweaty plastic wrap around my forearm. I still had the tattoo. I still didn’t have my keys.
Fabian had given me the tattoo lying in his bed the night before. We met in a club thirty-six hours earlier, on Sunday afternoon, after I tried to pick up his roommate, a brooding Austrian boy with shoulder-length blond hair who was sitting alone away from the dance floor. He had a homemade tattoo of a sword on his wrist. His roommate had made it, he said, and did I want to meet him? They both turned out to be straight, and we spent the rest of the day dancing together and sharing our drinks and our cigarettes and whatever else we had.
Another Sunday afternoon dancing at the same club, a Portuguese friend stopped me and asked, “Americans come here for the freedom, right?” Another Sunday there, a Scottish boy asked me if I moved to Berlin “just to have fun.” Usually in these situations I say, “I guess so.” Nobody with pupils that size could have patience for a real answer.
As he was finishing up the tattoo late the next night, I remember asking Fabian how old he was and trying to get some basic facts straight. He was twenty-four, like me. He had grown up outside of Frankfurt am Main and had two tattoos he’d given himself. He asked if I wanted to spend the night on his couch, but I felt like going home because the sun was already coming up. I forgot my keys in his room.
When I woke up in the park later that morning, I didn’t really know how the tattoo turned out, because if you’re doing it right—if you’re puncturing the skin deep enough and have enough ink in the thread around the end of the needle—there’s blood and ink on your skin, and then the next day it starts to bruise.
The tattoo was the first thing my German mother noticed when I showed up at her country house in Brandenburg an hour outside Berlin later that day. She wanted to know why anyone would do something like that to his body.
To kick-start my German and buy time to find an apartment, I arranged to live with a German family as a guest student my first month. I was assigned to a family living in Pankow, a quiet neighborhood in former East Berlin. Caryatids held up the eaves of their house, which was built for a Nazi in the thirties on the grounds of a Jewish tuberculosis hospital. The house shared a street with prefabricated communist apartment buildings, and the tuberculosis hospital stood in ruins beyond the backyard fence.
Within twenty minutes of arriving from the airport, I spotted the Leni Riefenstahl coffee table book above the record player in the living room. I found out I would be the first Jew to meet their two young sons, Utz and Bruno. I learned that my name sounds just like Sieg, a word for victory favored by the Nazis; the sort of thing you shout with one arm raised straight out over the horizon in salute—“Sieg Heil!”—a funny name for a German Jew back in Germany one hundred twenty years after his family had left.
I had my own fun with all of this, making jokes in the passenger seat of my German dad’s C-class, like “How many Jews can fit in a Mercedes?” After the punch line, there was a long silence. The family soon learned I could be on the receiving end of jokes as well. They asked me to dress up as Weihnachtsmann, German Santa Claus, for the boys on Christmas Eve and show up at the door wearing a white cotton beard and red robes carrying a burlap sack full of presents.
We stayed close even after I moved out, and, when summer came, I looked forward to invitations to visit them in the country. Trips to the family’s house in Brandenburg always meant I would get to spend a few days speaking exclusively German and could wake up early to run around their lake. If the weather was right, they’d take me foraging for mushrooms in the forest. The parents grew up in different countries, East and West Germany, and met at a concert in Berlin after the wall fell. The idyllic life they created for their sons was in many ways a study on life in the new Germany.
The night I arrived with my fresh tattoo, we sat on the lawn and had spaghetti for dinner. When they were finished eating and asking about the needle, Utz and Bruno went off to play on their trampoline, and I stayed at the table to catch up with the parents.
Weeks earlier, a court in Cologne had ruled that circumcising young boys constituted serious bodily harm. The issue came before the judges after a four-year-old Muslim boy was brought to an emergency room for complications following a circumcision. Children have a “fundamental right to bodily integrity,” the court ruled, and snipping off a piece of the foreskin constitutes Körperverletzung, bodily harm that no adult should be allowed to inflict on a helpless child. Germany was considering making it illegal to circumcise children.
The father, a lawyer, agreed with the court. The ritual reasons behind circumcision were obsolete, he argued, leaning back in his chair. Besides, it was a barbaric practice and prevented the baby from identifying his own religion later. German can introduce a sense of inflexibility and arrogance in conversations like these. It’s a rigid and exact language, even when the topic up for discussion is not.
Across the lawn, a fight broke out on the trampoline. Bruno, the older and more sensitive of the two brothers, called over to his parents to intervene. After glancing over the situation, the father called back to his sons that they should fight it out. Bruno pulled back a fist to punch Utz, and the next day the two brothers were back to playing with each other like nothing ever happened.
Louisa and I met in New York, but we became friends once we started running together in Berlin. The runs were where we uncovered and learned to accept each other’s quirks and where we got comfortable enough to pass time together in silence. Running, we learned to be vulnerable around and support each other. The first time we went, we lasted thirteen miles on a day that was well below freezing.
I had no job in Berlin and not many friends—just a research grant, German classes, and whatever freelance assignments I could get—so sports were a great way to imagine I had a sense of purpose and pass the time, usually alone. I’d go to clubs to be around people. I got the idea that being in your early twenties was a great time to do incongruous things with your body. I’d spend the whole morning at the gym and the rest of the day smoking cigarettes with a break to go running with Louisa in the afternoon. I’d go for a long swim before a long run before a long night out that turned into a full day dancing in a club.
These things aren’t as different as they seem anyway. To run far with someone is to change your body chemistry together (to push each other towards a distant high while honing the very sinews of your body!); it’s not so different from the chemical-induced intimacy that comes with taking drugs with a stranger. Because you share one experience together, you get the illusion that you share much more. Sometimes you actually do.
One illusion that’s hard to hold onto living abroad is that you belong where you are. Over the year we were both in Berlin, Louisa became the only woman I could count as a close friend, and as the summer wound down, it became time for her to leave. Her husband’s research fellowship was up. So was mine, but I decided to stay, The night we were saying goodbye, I showed her the tattoo. She wanted to know if Fabian had been drunk. “Zeke, you don’t let a drunk person needle ink into your arm!” she said. “I don’t even know if I can leave you in Berlin.” We snuck in one more run before she moved back to New York, and now we run in Central Park whenever I come home.
On the night we met, it took me a while to begin really trusting Fabian. If friendship runs a normal course though trust, intimacy, and loyalty, we had begun somewhere in the middle. In Berlin I had no real straight friends for the first time in my life, and I knew when he asked me if I wanted a tattoo it was one of those times where it’s important to just be vulnerable and game.
Fabian lives more vigorously than anybody I know. There can be something threatening about this, something dominating about how carefree he is. He told me recently that his older brother smokes a pack of cigarettes every day and does Ironman Triathlons. Fabian has the same amount of energy, and you can see it pouring out of his enormous blue eyes.
We live around the corner from each other now, and he and the brooding Austrian have become two of my best friends in the city. One night last week, Fabian and I planned to meet at his apartment so I could interview him about why he decided to get circumcised a few years ago. He was studying in Barcelona at the time, and he thought the procedure would be a good excuse to throw a party at home for his friends and family. “I also thought it’s cool to be circumcised at an age where you know what it’s like to have sex with a foreskin and how it is to have sex without a foreskin,” he said.
We had just eaten dinner, and Fabian was sitting next to his desk with his legs crossed at the knees. “Before, I always felt like I want to go further—the skin never tore or nothing—but I was kind of afraid,” he said. Circumcisions aren’t unheard of in Germany, but they’re rare. Out of his ten closest friends in high school, Fabian said only two or three are cut. The national average is closer to one in ten.
He doubled over and began rolling a cigarette as he described the healing process after the surgery. Each day after the procedure, the wound turned a different color. It itched. He once woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain with an erection that was stretching his stitches. Then there was the psychological aftermath. “At the start I was a little disappointed that actually I had a scar. I still have a scar,” he said. “But now I think it’s okay. I just thought it would be perfect, the perfect penis. It’s not, but it’s okay.”
“Sometimes you don’t actually see that scar,” he added. “Your penis can be in different moods.”
He said that he enjoys sex more after the circumcision—that’s an easy question for him to answer. There’s more pleasure in his life. I asked him how the circumcision changed his relationship with himself or made him feel different in his body. “I mean, it’s like I’m more naked,” he said after thinking for a moment. “But I think I feel more confident in my body, even if I’m more exposed.”
Zeke Turner lives in Berlin.