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A Stiletto, A Lamppost And The Soul Of Berlin

Sep 21, 2012
Originally published on September 21, 2012 10:09 pm

Something horrible has happened in Berlin.

You won't see it on TV or in the newspaper, but I know about it. So do my neighbors.

That's because there's a lamppost on our street, festooned with a note that reads, "A HORRIBLE ACCIDENT HAS HAPPENED." And naturally, once you see a note like that, you have to find out more.

As it turns out, the note was written by 29-year-old Maira Becke. But before I reveal her calamity, I must first explain the significance of lamp posts here in Berlin.

In this pulsating city, lampposts matter. They're virtual totem poles of information. From top to toe, they bristle with stickers and notes about all sorts of stuff.

These notes, fliers and posters are so densely packed that many lampposts have their own geology. Some, like the post on which Becke tacked her note, have grown a thick crust of paper, like a tree ring.

And every night across Berlin, thousands of fresh notes appear.

The Soul Of A City ...

A trendy neighborhood, Mitte, was once in Soviet-controlled East Berlin. The buildings that loom here are austere and imposing. You can practically feel the distant echo of an authoritarian state.

Yet, at eye level, the people have taken over the public space and are filling it with their fliers and notes.

Many of these notes are no different from those you see in cities everywhere: apartments to rent, missing cats, underground gigs, art shows and crazy night clubs.

But some fall into an entirely different category.

"They in some way allow a deep insight of the soul of the city," says Berliner Joab Nist. "These are real treasures that need to be documented, because it's part of our everyday life culture."

Nist collects these notes, which he has turned into a book and posts on a blog. And, he says, they play a remarkable role in the emotional life of this big city. Berliners use notes to complain about noisy neighbors, for example, to send romantic messages to strangers they've seen on a train.

And just to rant.

"Would the [expletive] who stole my bicycle last night kindly bring it back immediately?" says one note in Nist's collection. "Didn't you notice, the bike's barely roadworthy? More love has been poured into that bike than you have brains in your head!"

Nist says scrawling out these notes is a good form of anger management — and a far better outlet than more high-tech forums.

"That's the way you can deal with problems that instantly arise," Nist says. "If you think about a way to get rid of your anger, it's therapy, and if you think about many other topics it's just more useful that the Internet."

... And A Pricey Shoe

And what of Becke's "horrible accident"?

Do you remember how much you loved your first really good pair of shoes? That's how Becke felt about her black 6-inch stilettos.

"This was the first very good shoe that I had," Becke says. "And it was part of my confidence."

Becke is a model from Brazil. Shoes — and confidence — are important. Her special pair are made by Christian Louboutin. They cost her 800 euros, about $1,100. Quite a bit of money to pay for shoes.

The other day Becke lost one in the street on her way to work. The left shoe fell out of her backpack, she says, and she hasn't got it back.

With such a hefty price tag, "you can understand my sorrow about it," Becke says. "I was disappointed. Frustrated. Mad, angry," she says. "Everything together."

But as she went around town pinning up notes, Becke felt sure the many readers of Berlin's lampposts will look out for it.

"Because I saw people taking pictures [of the notice]," she says. "When they would see it they would look at me, and they would smile at me with compassion, you know, like, I understand, it happens."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's go to Berlin, capital of Germany, one of the most technologically connected countries in the world. Germany has more mobile phones than people. Yet sometimes, if you run into trouble in Berlin, more traditional forms of communication work better. NPR's Philip Reeves sent us a letter from Berlin.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Something horrible has happened in Berlin. You won't see it on TV or in the newspaper. But I know about it. So do my neighbors. I know about it because of a lamppost on my street. On that lamppost, there's a note. "A horrible accident has happened," it says.

Anyone who sees a note like that has to find out more. The author turned out to be a 29-year-old woman called Maira Becke. Maira posted the note because...

MAIRA BECKE: I was disappointed, frustrated, mad, angry - everything together.

REEVES: We'll come to her horrible accident in a minute. First, I want to talk about the lamppost. In this pulsating city, lampposts matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOISES)

REEVES: The lampposts of Berlin are unlike any I've ever seen before. They're totem poles of information. From top to toe, they bristle with stickers and notes about all sorts of stuff. These notes are so densely packed, that some lampposts have their own geology. This one right here has grown a thick crust of paper, like a tree ring.

Every night across Berlin, thousands of fresh notes appear. This trendy neighborhood I'm in right now used to be in Soviet-controlled East Berlin. The buildings looming around me are austere and imposing. You can feel the distant echo of an authoritarian state. Yet at eye-level, the people have taken over the public space and are filling it with their writing, with their notes.

Many of these notes are no different from those you see in cities everywhere. They're about apartments to rent, missing cats, underground gigs, art shows, crazy nightclubs. Yet some fall into an entirely different category.

JOAB NIST: They, in some way, allow a deep insight of the soul of the city. And these are real treasures and all, that need to be documented because it's part of our everyday life, culture.

REEVES: Joab Nist collects these notes. He's turned them into a book, and also posts them on a blog. Nist says these notes play a remarkable role in the emotional life of this big city. Berliners use notes to complain about noisy neighbors, to send romantic messages to strangers they've seen on a train, and to rant.

(Reading) "Would the (bleep) who stole my bicycle last night kindly bring it back immediately?" says one in his collection. "Didn't you notice the bike's barely roadworthy? More love has been poured into that bike than you have brains in your head."

Nist says scrawling out notes like these, is a good form of anger management.

NIST: That's the way how you can deal with problems that instantly arise and...

REEVES: It's therapy.

NIST: It - therapy, in some way, if you think about the way to get rid of your anger, it - therapy. And if you think about many other topics, it's just more useful than the Internet.

REEVES: What of Maira Becke and her horrible accident? Remember how much you loved your first really good pair of shoes? Becke's are black, 6-inch stilettos.

BECKE: This was the first very good shoe that I had and was part of - also, my confidence.

REEVES: Becke's a model. Shoes are important. Her special pair is made by Christian Louboutin of Paris, and cost...

BECKE: Around 800 euros.

REEVES: Which is about $1,100.

BECKE: Yes.

REEVES: That's quite a lot of money to pay for a shoe.

BECKE: Yes, it is. So you can understand my sorrow about it.

REEVES: The other day, Becke lost one of them on the street, on her way to her work. The left shoe fell out of her bag. She hasn't got it back. But as she went around town the other day, pasting up notes, Becke felt sure the many readers of the lampposts of Berlin, will look out for it.

BECKE: Because I saw people taking pictures, you know. And they - when they would...

REEVES: Pictures of your notice?

BECKE: Yeah. And when they would see it, they would look at me, and they would smile at me with compassion like - you know, like, putz, I understand. It happens, sucks.

REEVES: As you were putting the notices out...

BECKE: Yeah.

REEVES: ...they were smiling compassionately at you?

BECKE: Yeah, yeah, they were.

(LAUGHTER)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You hear Philip right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.