Beset by love, lust, and other forms of collegial companionship at the University of Benin, my friends and I got into Under the Iron Sea, the 2006 album by the English rock band Keane. Some days, a member of the group would sing the opening lines from Try Again, one of the sadder songs on the album:
“I fell asleep on the late night train/I missed my stop and I went round again…”
I was partial to other songs from that album, but listening to this friend croak Try Again several times on idle days, I became a fan.
I forget if my friend ever went beyond that line so that now I wonder what those words held for him. Could it be the longing in the singer’s voice?
We were, after all, in university, gorging on hormones and romance—thinking unrequited passions and a vague notion of specialness that abides in the heart of even the least talented adolescent confirmed us as artists. Today, the closest I can come up with for my friend’s love of that line is the thrill of the unfamiliar; in this case, the idea of trains and deferred reversibility. He lived in Lagos, like I do now, a city without subways or passenger trains. A city run on motorbikes, tricycles and buses.
For all of Lagos’s vaunted modernity, which my friend regularly sprayed in everyone’s face, its transport network abides in the space between post-primitive and truly modern. Nevertheless, it was enough, as I suspect it still is, to have come from Lagos to attend university any place else. (Those conversations about cities and towns of residence never end; they are being enacted as I write this sentence.)
I had attended primary school in Lagos, but it would not do. Moving to Lokoja in middle-belt Nigeria for secondary school cost me points on the Chart of Cool. How was I to know I’ll be judged for a decision that wasn’t mine to make? No one said this to me directly; it was an unwritten rule and powerful for that reason. Before long a friend, looking quite upset, told me this same boy from Lagos had told her she couldn’t be worth much if she grew up in Ilorin. It wounded her. At the time, I thought highly of my own teenage intelligence, confirmed by secondary school report cards and testimonies from classmates. Yet it was an affront to us non-Lagosians. If I get the chance, I thought, I’d show him how inferior he really was for her and for myself—me who had spent a lifetime reading, learning from film, music, and books. Instead we met and became friends. Thinking about it now, I see our mutual friend could have taunted the boy about his city’s ragged public transport system.
At the minimum, people boarded stationary buses in Lokoja—and Ilorin presumably. We were civilised. We had none of the alighting from moving vehicles as is the custom in Lagos. We had none of the cramped legroom of danfos. But I was as ignorant of Lagos as he was of Lokoja. Myth substituted experience and Lokoja and Ilorin, their three unmelodious syllables conceding defeat, turned out poorly. These days I am something of a Lagos public transport cognoscenti but the Chart of Cool no longer matters—not in the way it did back then.
Plus, I realise the chaos of Lagos has its uses. For a city like Berlin, which considered alongside my time in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and much later, Paris, I’ll say is a typical European city, a missed stop is a full stop. In Lagos, a missed stop is a comma. You get the driver to stop; you cross; you take another bus back. (Your mileage varies according to the driver’s mood.)
Not so Berlin. Just try getting a train to stop between stations. At some stops I saw people rush to catch another train. If they don’t make it, they wait till the next scheduled stop. None of the haphazardness of the Lagos bus system. With this obedience to time, missing a train, I thought, must be what missing rapture is for Christians: Subsequently salvation can be purchased only through blood and sweat.
It was there in Berlin I understood my friend’s favourite line from Try Again, a line I had come to mumble many times. “I fell asleep on the late night train/I missed my stop and I went round again…”
Fortunately, I never had to go round like the song’s narrator. This I took as a sort of victory since I am one of those people who fall asleep in any moving contraption, be it matchbox or bus.
Berlin had called to me from Lagos where I was laboring under a freelance gig as film critic, among other hackwork. The city’s film festival had deemed those pieces of criticism worthy of an invitation to Talent Press, a longstanding program for film critics in Berlin. As one of eight film critics selected from around the world, I was quite glad.
The other Nigerians invited for the larger Talent Campus program, two directors and one cinematographer, had different routines. We were as friendly as the critic-filmmaker relationship allowed. Perhaps luckily, I hadn’t reviewed their films. We knew that could change and worked around the possibility, deferring tension with jokes. Compatriots in a strange city, we dealt with all of the tricky camaraderie that comes with being both familiar and different in a vastly more different terrain.
They seemed to be enjoying their stay in Germany while I shuffled from screening to far-flung screening, from before dawn till past midnight, joining a winding queue to get tickets for press screenings by morning and trudging my way back to my dwelling in a cold-ass Berlin that worsened at night. Those queues were unending on days a marquee film was screening—although at the 2015 Berlinale most of those films turned out to be underwhelming. I missed the opening film, Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night. The next morning on the press queue, the verdict from other critics was unanimous: I didn’t miss much. Juliet Binoche couldn’t save it.
I missed Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and again was told it wasn’t very good. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert was panned as well. A critic from the UK put it this way, laughing as he spoke to me: “When a horse is tired, even if it was good in the past, you need to put it down.” I caught Every Thing Will be Fine, by Wim Wenders, another one of those good old German horses. I saw it in a needless 3-D and thought it good, but ultimately disappointing compared to the efforts of the foal Wenders. An unheralded Chinese film I attended provoked the most emotion, if bodily fluid is an indicator. Incredibly sentimental, this film which name I forget had me struggling to hold back tears. I let myself go, nose dripping as much as my tear ducts. By the end I could swear I heard sniffling around in the hall. But it was winter—perhaps everyone had a cold since once outside the hall no one had wet eyes. Darn Germans. One minute tender, the next ready for work.
For all of the assumed snobbery of critics, most of whom one would think give off implacable airs and long for experimental pictures, the longest queue I saw was on the day the ticket for 50 Shades of Grey opened. I gave up on obtaining a ticket after observing the queue’s interminable length. Later I learned two press screenings had to be held for the film. I chuckled at the news.
Say what you will about film criticism, the vocation is prude-proof. The great American critic Pauline Kael, one of the tribe’s illustrious priests and a personal inspiration, named her first collection I Lost it at the Movies. Another collection was titled Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.
Kael was winking at her readers. Film critics spend a lot of time in the dark. Besides sleep, what other activity takes place when the lights go down?
There were days when, overcome with available choices, I became paralysed. Hours zipped past and lying in bed reading James Wolcott’s Critical Mass, my Mexican and Greek roommates out partying elsewhere, I realised I had seen not a single film. By morning I wiped off inertia, put on good intentions and headed out to Postdamer Platz, place of half a dozen cinemas, ready for a heady delight of dreams.
It was my very first excursion to Europe, so maybe I ought to cut myself some slack. Just before reaching Berlin I had just seen over two dozen films at the Rotterdam film festival in the Netherlands—where I was one of four critics invited for the Young Critic’s Project. Another critic had informed me that I was the second person to be invited for both the Berlin and Rotterdam film critic academies in the same year in the history of the programmes—a bit of trivia that made me happy but in practice left me film-fatigued. The Berlinale, as chaotic as such a well-organised festival can be, didn’t help much. A critic described it as ‘Royal Rumble’. And he was right.
One morning as I walked towards the Berlinale Palast, the marquee venue of the festival, a lady told me how she navigates the city: “If I want to see Berlin, I use a bicycle; when I want to see the people, I take the subway.” Unable to ride a bicycle, I was condemned to the underground, the U-Bahn, where I found she was right.
Riding in the underground, you see people in a way you don’t in Lagos buses: You look in their faces. This difference appears small, inconsequential even. But there is so much the face tells of; even if the observed is looking away, looking at a face releases something beholding backs never can.
It was especially enlightening noting the difference between faces by morning as I headed to Hotel Hyatt at Postdamer Platz for movie tickets and often past midnight as I returned to my bed at Wombats Hostel.
By dawn, faces were perky, perhaps from the coffee cups of Berlin, prepared to face the day and by night, those faces had fallen, tired or dreading the next day of a life in cycles. Once formidable bodies were now crumpled on seats within shirts, jackets, sweaters. There was some dignity left at work’s end, this after all was Germany, but it was of the defiant stock. A few commuters made time still to display affection, of course. Yet by night the number of flirtatious lovers in those trains had dwindled. As had the passion— now expressed mostly by blonde hair on jacketed shoulder, hand within lover’s hand, tongue resting discontent in its owner’s mouth.
It is the writer’s conceit to believe he only looks, only he sees. He is that fly on the wall, un-swat, the sentient presence unseen. He resists judgment because he holds the notepad. Like the stenographer he records everyone else as he stays obscure in the shadows even in the well-lit trains of Berlin. When the train wasn’t full some nights, I recorded observations in a notepad. Sometimes I used a phone. Other times I knew the image would abide: The aghast look of a commuter as she noticed two young boys touching amorously; the flush of a girl’s face as she kissed a lightly bearded man; hearing a familiar tune muffled from an headpiece and then confirming from the listener it was an R&B song from the 90s, Deborah Cox’s Sentimental or 112’s Only You, I forget; a middle-aged lady showing me a picture from her Canon camera of Christian Bale at the opening of Knight of Cups—just the right side of his face but it was enough celebrity for her. A very literate city, commuters carried books as large as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. People read kindles and broadsheets and magazines in the train. There’s hardly space for the human body in a Lagos bus; how much more a body holding open a hardback novel.
Several times the hopeful author in my head had a thought: How great it’ll be to have a book translated into German! (As though to confirm to me that my hopes were not unfounded, a German friend later told me Teju Cole’s Open City won a German translation prize, with the author feted in Berlin.) The book may be dying, as they claim, but not in Berlin. Not in Paris either, as I found out later.
Questions arose of their own idiom on nights my writer’s vanity slipped: What did these people see if I happened not to be a fly but a being as present as they were? A stubborn man refusing to acquire a jacket and thus stuck with a woollen blue sweater bloated with all of the clothing underneath? A bespectacled man looking a little intently at them? A self-effacing man pretending not to watch? A guy like any other holding the Berlinale journal, trying to figure what to see the next day? Was it possible to tell I was visiting?—the idea in Lagos is to never give away that you are a newcomer. It is received wisdom passed down from older generation of ‘immigrants’ to newer ones.
I quickly mastered the U2 route of the U-Bahn. It connects Wombats on Alte Schönhauser street to Postdamer Platz. But on days I had to connect with a different line—usually the U8 or U6—I traced the image showing the transport system inside of the train with a finger, perhaps a sure sign of the newcomer. This display of ignorance wasn’t punished in Berlin. It might not even be punished in Lagos, but in places like Lagos, sometimes the myth is more potent than experience.
One night I caught my reflection on the U2’s window. I, too, with a furrowed brow and swollen cheeks, looked worn out by the bustle of the Berlin Film Festival, juggling my criticism writing duties to the Talent Press, and scribbling on a notepad in the rare interval. I saw that, on a minor scale, what I thought about other commuters I was as well: feisty by dawn, fatigued at dusk.
I had gone from listening to Keane to drinking König Pilsener, had left the University of Benin to the U-Bahn of Berlin—descending from terra firma to the subterranean—to find that between this African alien and the European native, a denominator could yet be found.
A version of this essay appears on the German Information Centre Africa website.
Post image by Matthias Ripp via flickr.
About the Author
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo tweets @catchoris and is the winter 2016 writer-in-residence on the island of Sylt, Germany. In 2015, he won the All Africa Music Award for Music Journalism. A film and pop music critic, Oris has appeared in Chimurenga, the Guardian UK, and the Africa Report.