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Guest blog: Patti Smith’s Berlin

Guest blogger and author Jennifer Richardson takes us on a journey through Berlin as seen through the eyes of Patti Smith and her most recent memoir "M Train".

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Patti Smith. Photo by Beni Köhler (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Jennifer Richardson is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. She’s lived in Berlin for two years, and you can find her online at jenniferrichardson.net.

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M Train (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, is a meditation on being a woman alone in the world – and the search for a good cup of coffee – offering an intimate glimpse into her home life in New York and her travels around the world, which invariably include pilgrimages to sites associated with her favourite artists. Outside of New York we accompany Smith to French Guiana, London, Mexico, Japan, Yorkshire, Tangier, and, as luck would have it, Berlin, where she tracks her heroes from Bulgakov to Brecht. At loose ends one weekend while reading the book, I retraced her steps around the city in my own homage to Smith.

Prompted by a meeting of the Continental Drift Club – an obscure society Smith belonged to that was dedicated to the memory of Alfred Wegener, the originator of the theory of continental drift – Smith’s visit to Berlin begins with her checking into a hotel that’s “a renovated Bauhaus structure in the Mitte district of the former East Berlin”. Although she doesn’t name it, this description along with its proximity to the church of St. Marien and St. Nikolai, where Smith goes for a walk, suggests it’s the hotel at Soho House.

After checking in, Smith immediately heads to nearby Pasternak, a Russian restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg decorated in the manner of an elderly Eastern European relative’s living room. Here she sits in her favourite spot, on a plump leather couch beneath a photograph of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita – which Smith was once obsessed with – and dines on caviar served with a shot of vodka and a cup of black coffee. I opted for the borscht, beetroot soup studded with large white beans that reminded me of the white bean soup Smith routinely orders in M Train while writing at Café ’Ino, her beloved New York coffee shop.

Outside Pasternak, Smith takes a walk across the street to a small park that includes “the city’s oldest water tower”. The structure has a tragic history that Smith doesn’t mention: prior to its current incarnation as apartments, the water tower had an adjacent building that was the first concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Without wanting to read too much into the symbolism of the Berlin buildings that appear in M Train – this is, after all, a city where it’s almost impossible not to interact with architecture tinged by the legacy of war and oppression – it struck me that this icon of sorrow echoes the theme of loss in the book: the deaths of Smith’s husband, parents and brother; Hurricane Sandy; and the shuttering of her favorite hangouts, Café ’Ino in NYC and Zak’s café in Rockaway Beach.

After giving a disastrous speech to the Continental Drift Club – salvaged afterward by vodkas with the Liverpudlian club secretary at Pasternak – Smith stays on in Berlin for a few days to revisit old haunts. She heads to Zoo Station in West Berlin for breakfast at Café Zoo before wandering around the mostly empty actual zoo trying to figure out if a worker scraping a camel logo off the café door meant that it was closing. (My own investigation turned up a notice on the Zoo Station shopping center website saying it was zurzeit im Umbau – closed for renovation.) This part of the city is inextricably linked to her contemporary, David Bowie, and her visit evokes an era she writes about in her first memoir, Just Kids.

Smith finishes her visit to Berlin with a morning walk through Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Mitte. Her habit of visiting the graves of artists she loves – she also makes pilgrimages to the graves of Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Osamu Dazai in Japan, and Paul Genet in Morocco – exemplifies one of Smith’s best and most surprising traits: her unabashed, earnest fangirl-ness.

At Dorotheenstadt Smith notices the legacy of World War II, visible in the cemetery’s “block-long bullet-riddled walls” as she makes her way to where Bertolt Brecht is buried (his former residence, now the Brecht archive, is next door to the cemetery). Graveside she hums the lullaby from his play, Mother Courage and Her Children, slipping into a brief and mournful reminiscence of her own dead mother and brother.

After my own visit to Brecht’s grave I headed to my favourite café, the nearby Oslo Kaffebar. There I drank my coffee alone but grateful for Smith’s companionship in my wanderings around the city. It’s no Café ’Ino, but I think she would’ve liked the coffee.

St. Marien und St. Nikolaifriedhof Friedhof, Prenzlauer Allee 1,

Restaurant Pasternak, Knaackstraße 22/24,

Zoologischer Garten, Hardenbergplatz 8,

Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, Chausseestraße 126,