The Berlin Diaries – Eye Contact Forever

There’s always something going on here. Every day, it’s a simple matter of having a quick peek on Facebook or wherever, and lo, hundreds of events. Gigs, poetry slams, open mic nights, comedy, raves, free parties, art exhibits, light shows, performance art, you name it. Never a dull moment.

On Saturday, an old friend from Come Backpackers messaged me. It was Dave, the long haired English guy who is furious about Brexit. The guy I kind of accidentally smoked hash with in a park on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Dave sent me a link to an event happening that evening. I looked on the website and found that it was an eye contact experiment – one of the world’s largest, or something. I watched a video of one previous exhibition. Strangers in the street simply sat opposite one another and stared unspeaking into each other’s eyes. Seemed suitably weird for my evening’s entertainment. I went along.

I considered having a beer beforehand, for courage, as I had no idea what to expect. However, I felt this would lessen the impact of the eye contact, so I abstained. I know, right? Me! Saying no! Wow, I’m growing.

I got the tube a million stops, whisked miles away across the city. I got off on an unidentifiable street corner and navigated my way to the place. The centre it was being held in was called ‘Spirit’ or ‘Soul’ or ‘Dream’ or some hippy name. I turned off the main road and headed down a quiet side street with a cobbled road and a couple of corner shops. A large, dark apartment building was directly to my left. The map on my phone said this was the place. Huh.

There was no one around. I was expecting some happy-happy spirit guru to guide me into a large function room that smelled like damp and disinfectant, like every youth club and scout hut in the world. Instead, I was staring up at a block of flats, across a grassy courtyard. Is there anyone here, or is this one of those Craigslist murder scenarios? Had I been lured here under the false promise of awkward eye contact, when in reality all I’d be getting was a good buggering followed by a quick shanking?

I found a clue. A drawing of an eye was stuck to the noticeboard next to the gate into the courtyard. I couldn’t imagine what else it’d be there for, so I wandered in. Down the path there were more eyes, planted here and there, on trees and in the grass. They led to a door, which was propped open. Inside the building, there was another eye next to the lifts. I got in, and looked at my reflection in the mirror. Why do I do this weird shit to myself? There was a final eye next to a button in the lift. I pressed for the third floor.

The doors opened and I was met with a huge pile of shoes. I stepped out into what looked like a converted flat/art space, and took my shoes off, throwing them on the pile with the rest. A couple of happy guys had a desk set up in the hallway, and I signed my name. They told me to head inside and relax. I dumped my belongings and crept inside.

The main room looked like a house party, except everyone was eating vegan food and drinking tea. A lot of cool, artsy people with interesting haircuts stood around discussing abstract concepts like how the gentle autumn wind can teach us a lot about our own sexuality, or whatever. I’m never going to be a cool art person, and I’ve made peace with that fact. I like weird conversation, but I don’t like see-through attempts at intellectualism. Just speak like every day people, man. Farts are hilarious and if you don’t laugh at them you’re dead inside.

I mingled with the cool art people. Actually, mingled is the wrong word because it implies I interacted with anyone. I did not. I just bobbed around, not knowing where to stand or what to do with my hands. I leaned against a wall for a bit, gazing calmly around me, so convincing in appearing chilled and normal that nobody looking at me would know otherwise. Nobody would guess I was thinking ‘what the fucking fuck am I doing here with all these weird cool art people oh my god I am an outsider help me I am not cool enough they will find out they will sense I am uncool and I will be shunned and forever an outcast help me AAAAAAH’.

I decided it was time for some eye contact. Bring it on.

The next room was beyond a glass door. A girl stood opening it, letting people in and out as a space in the eye contact room became available. She told me there was a place free, and to head right in. I gulped, and entered. The room was perhaps 20 by 20 metres, a trendy wooden affair with windows all the way around and the Berlin skyline beyond. There were rows and rows of chairs, and people were sitting in pairs, facing one another. No talking was allowed, and so the room was silent. I found an empty seat and planted my arse.

I was opposite a guy with dark brown skin and thick black hair. We nodded at each other, and smiled. I settled into my seat, and looked into his eyes. They were dark brown, with large black pupils. We both smirked at the ridiculousness of it all, but continued. There was no time limit, you simply stand up when you have had enough.

So, we stared. And stared. There’s something incredibly intense about gazing into someone’s eyes. I started to wander what he was thinking and what he was seeing when looking at me. I wandered who he was, if he was a nice guy, if he even spoke English. It’s amazing what the human brain can recognise in a face. I got the feeling that we would get on well, if we were to speak. All that from just a look. I could see a kindness in his eyes, one that I couldn’t even pinpoint. I just knew it.

A pair of girls in my peripheral vision started to giggle, quietly. They tried to stifle it but couldn’t, and worked themselves into a laughing fit. Within seconds they were in hysterics, still staring at each other. The laughter was infectious. Everyone cracked a smile at the absurdity of it all. I started laughing too, and soon everyone in the place was giggling uncontrollably. It was a beautiful thing to witness. Laughter is something we all share.

I stood up after and shook hands with my partner. We thanked each other, and I left to find someone new. I sat down opposite the only other free person, a tall, pale guy with fair hair and a scraggly beard. He looked a bit like Shaggy. We smiled, and began. After a minute or so, I would have sworn his eyes were tearing up. It happens to some people. They get overcome with emotion, and it’s easy to see how – the humanity and individualism it brings out is astonishing.

Earlier that day, I’d visited the Topography of Terror, the old Gestapo headquarters. I’d spent the afternoon reading about the mass murder of the Jews, and the dehumanisation of them as a people.  The German soldiers and the SS were trained by Himmler to feel no empathy towards other human beings. Now, only a few hours later, I was sat with complete strangers I would never see again, witnessing all the life going on behind every single pair of eyes.

My watery eyed friend composed himself before a tear fell. I kind of wanted him to cry. It would be good to know the intensity of my gaze could reduce a man to tears. I tried to muster as much sorrow and pain into my stare as I could. Come on, man, cry. Can’t you see the hurt in my eyes? Stare into the depths of my soul and feel my anguish. You don’t know my story. I could be anyone. I have known loss. Cry for me, random shaggy haired man.

He did not cry. Balls.

I moved on to my final partner, a girl around my age. She had long brown hair, no make-up on, and was wearing a floral shirt. It was a week ago, roughly, and I can still remember all their faces perfectly. Spent enough time staring at them, I suppose. My new partner was different to the first two. Rather than staring blankly at me, I could see something in her face. She was thinking about me, examining me.

She constantly changed her body language – sitting forward, leaning back, crossing her legs, uncrossing them, scratching her neck, folding her arms, resting her head on her hand. I followed her lead, and it ended up flowing like a strange game, the rules of which neither of us really knew. She’d move, I’d move. She furrowed her brow ever so slightly, and it set a million questions off in my mind. Was she mad at me? Was she confused? Was she weird? Would we be friends?

It’s incredible what you can infer from the most minute of muscle contractions. A jaw tightening, the lips pursing, eyebrows raising a fraction. Usually when we talk, we use grand hand gestures and wildly fluctuating tones of voice to help with the interpretation of the words we are saying. As anyone who has ever argued by text will know, words alone are incredibly easy to misinterpret. With all social cues gone, with words totally absent, all we have is the face itself to draw meaning from. It felt like we were having a conversation, without one syllable uttered.

After an eternity, I stood up, thanked her, and left the room. She caught up with me outside. Her name was Skye, and she was from New York. She was a student in Berlin. I was right – she told me she was playing a game with me. It felt like we’d been in there a long time. I checked. Forty minutes, we’d sat. Forty minutes of silent eye contact. It was strange speaking after – I felt like I already knew her, but here we were asking the most basic and introductory of questions. We chatted for a while, but unfortunately before we could properly make friends I had to dash off out of the building for a wee in a bush, as the line for the toilets was huge. So long, Skye.

I headed to a house party with my friend Michelle after, where I was abused by the Danish birthday girl because I told her I spoke a little Danish and had been a to a few places in her country. She told me I was crap at Danish and English people think we are so good just because we can speak a few words of someone else’s language when everyone is speaking ours all the time. She criticised everything I said, and took great joy in loudly telling me I’d actually barely been anywhere in Denmark. I was unspeakably furious at this point, however it was her joint birthday party, so I nodded courteously at her, apologised for being such a terrible person, and left to talk to someone who wasn’t a massive, massive bastard.

After, I went with Michelle to a night club called Ohm which was tiny and dark with industrial décor and white tiled walls. It looked like Gordon Ramsay opened a new restaurant with Freddy Krueger. I got home around 6am. Michelle stayed out for probably another 12 hours after I left.

Usual Berlin shenanigans.

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