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Pilgrimage to the Source

By David FOENKINOS Sofitel Berlin Gendarmenmarkt

Berlin is an antidote to routine. Divided, demolished, walled in, protected by angels and lindens, Berlin contains all cities. I’d like to marry a woman who is Berlin. Is that why I come here every year with the woman I would so like to marry? But that woman remains eternally wedded to her husband (which seems perfectly logical). Eight years ago, Alice married her dentist, a total aberration in terms of intimacy. She told me that he had made irresistible declarations about the sublime beauty of her molars (to each his arms of seduction). It’s like pulling teeth, the saying goes. Well, he pulled Alice away from me. I knew her already at the time, and it was clear that we were a couple with a future. But she saw things differently. She was having work done on her teeth, and she probably thought it would all be very practical. A
pragmatic atrocity. Before getting married, she wrote me a note:
“Every year my husband goes away for a few days to a dentists’ convention. Those days when he’s away are yours.” And so my love story with Alice would be episodic thanks to an annual dentists’ convention.


Alice has long, straight hair, she loves scrambled eggs and she has a passion for the German cinema renaissance of the 1970s.
Above all, she’s obsessed with Alice in the Cities by Wim Wenders. Maybe it’s her narcissistic side? In fact if I think about it, I realize that she likes everything that has her name in the title:
She likes to be in wonderland, but prefers, simply, Woody Allen’s Alice . We walk for hours in the empty January streets (dentists’ conventions are often in January, which means that to discuss gums they go to Mauritius or Cuba; it could almost make you want to be a dentist; although, no, nothing could really make me want to be a dentist – who would want to spend their life looking at rotting teeth, forever telling people to brush them, bottom to top, then left to right, then diagonally?). But is this digression really appropriate just as I was about to describe our sweet, happy hours in Berlin? So: We stroll, we take in the beauty of transcended destruction, knowing that there’s always somewhere to have Wiener Schnitzel and that we can drink a beer to the chancellor’s health.


Alice and I always stay in the same hotel, the Sofitel, in the heart of Mitte. All the embassies are in that neighborhood, which is quite practical if you lose your passport. And it’s not unusual for women as beautiful as Alice to lose their passports; in fact, that’s how they can be identified. An atrium in the middle of the hotel filters the light, as if to embellish the dream I’m living. In the solarium on the top floor, you can stretch out like at the beach, except that the view is of the Berlin sky rather than the ocean. A bite of a green apple would complete the picture of paradise. We both think of Thomas Mann’s notion that the contemplation of beauty destines one to die. It’s not untrue; leaving Alice when we return to Paris is a small death. This time I had wanted it to be different. I wanted to make a declaration, something tender that would move her, touch her, soften her, but just as the words were about to come out of my mouth, a man of about 60, a fat man –
yes, I must be honest in this story: he was fat – walked across the room, naked. This irruption, perfectly logical in nudist Germany, cut short my attempt at decisive lyricism.


The room is like a cocoon. It’s so calm. Silence is the ultimate luxury. It’s been raining outside for several hours. Alice has been in the shower for about as long (she lounges in it, standing up, as if it were a vertical bath). Through the glass, I signal to her, but she doesn’t see me. It’s definitely a room for lovers: We are never really out of sight of each other, the bathroom is a glass-walled enclosure, so the shower of the woman you love becomes a show. If only Alice would look at me a bit, but no, still not even a glance. I decide that from now on we shouldn’t leave the room: It’s ridiculous to visit a city, however beautiful, when you’re in a beautiful room with a beautiful woman. Alice is my Brandenburg
Gate. Alice is my Checkpoint Charlie. Alice is my Reichstag. Alice is my Victory Column. I’m listing the sights of the city that I don’t want to visit, all the while scooping up her underwear that’s been strewn on the floor, as has mine: Although it might appear to be the aftermath of a wild sex scene, in fact it’s just that we’re messy.
I pick up one of her panties and start sniffing it like a mad man, like a maniac, like an idiot, like a man in love. Now it’s her turn to look at me through the glass without me noticing. Quietly, as if her body had become soap, she slips out of the bathroom and is then standing before me.
Startled, I look up without knowing whether I should feel ashamed or heroic. Until Alice makes it clear.
“You’re a psychopath.”
“You heard me. You’re a psychopath.”
“Because I smell your panties?”
“Not only that. Also because of the way you spy on me when I’m taking a shower.”
“I thought you didn’t see me.”
“I was pretending. Do you know any woman who doesn’t know when she’s being looked at?’’
“And I can tell that you’re watching me at night, too.”
“I want to get the most out of being with you. I want to save up images for the rest of the year. I’m getting my fill of you.”
“How elegant.”
“Alice, I’m fed up.”
“With what?”

“Why don’t you leave your husband?”
“I love him.”
“No, you don’t love him.”
“Yes, I do love him. And with you, I have my vacation from love.”
“There is no such thing as a vacation from love. If you love someone, you don’t take a vacation. You don’t love him. You can’t love a dentist. No one can love a dentist. And anyway, people become dentists because no one loves them.”
“Nonsense. Dentistry is a beautiful profession. It’s clear that you’ve never had a tooth orgasm.”
“A what?”
“Forget it.”
“O.K., you’re right, I’ll forget it. I’m going to pack my bag and leave. You can stay here alone on your vacation from love.”

She remained silent, and I started to pack my things, but in a way that was far too exaggerated to be real. After awhile, she interrupted me:
“Cut the drama and let’s go have dinner.”
“O.K. my love,’’ I said, like a child whose punishment had just been removed.


We ate in the hotel, which had one of the city’s best restaurants, a five-star establishment (or six, including Alice). Even Angela Merkel supposedly comes here sometimes for lunch, no doubt to settle serious crises. We, however, aren’t able to settle much of anything, both of us sick of our impossible situation. The meal had barely started, and Alice let loose.
“You know you’re really bugging me. You’re so annoying. We could take advantage of the moment, enjoy the place, but you just can’t help bringing up the same stuff, the same old stories about dentists and about my marriage…but what about you? Yes, you! Do I keep asking you to leave your wife?”
“Oh my wife! What does she have to do with any of this, with us?”
“Well, let’s see … You could leave her!”
“No, I’m not leaving anything until you leave the dentist.”
“What a wonderful demonstration of love. It’s pathetic.”
“Listen, you know my situation. With her, I’m always on vacation from love. Frankly, do you really think I could love a podiatrist?”
“If I love a dentist, you could love a podiatrist.”
At that, we exploded in laughter. The discussion had become absurd. The professions of our respective spouses had nothing to do with our decision to remain lovers. With her decision, that is.
“How about if go make love in the sauna?” she asked suddenly, flashing her scandalous erotic look. We would experience the apotheosis of a healthy, audacious, romantic sexual life. But no, we wouldn’t experience anything at all, because at the beginning of our adventure in the sauna, I had an attack. That’s my problem, I falter sometimes before beauty, it’s a risk I can never dispel here with her at the Sofitel (it rhymes).
I woke up in the hospital, and Alice whispered to me, “Oh I was so scared, my love.” She loved me after all. I was willing to die a bit if it meant I could open my eyes and see her face half-panic-stricken, half-relieved, her face filled with love. I couldn’t remember anything, Berlin, the sauna, our disputes, I had nearly had a heart attack and I felt good. Alice’s caresses were like the promise of a life together, finally, in the light. We didn’t deserve this situation, going on being lovers.
Early the next morning, she murmured, “…forget about your vow not to leave the room, and let’s go out for a walk….” So we went wandering around the city and found ourselves beside the old Berlin Wall. We each stood on opposite sides of what was now an imaginary border.
“A few years ago, we wouldn’t even have been able to touch each other,” she said.
“I would have been in the East and you in the West.”
“It’s like our lives now.”
“Yes, like our lives…”
This last phrase resonated in us like an ultimatum. Happiness was an urgent matter. I took Alice in my arms. Our embrace continued for a long moment that is still going on, and then she said:
“My teeth don’t hurt anymore.”
“And my feet don’t hurt anymore, either…” I replied, worn out by our new truth.

We made love just like the first time.


Short epilogue in which the idiocy of all this is revealed

It was time to return to Paris. I took some cakes that were offered at the reception desk and then said goodbye in German. Although I wasn’t sure I said it right, I added, “See you next year.” Alice and I came here together because we adored the place, of course, but we really came because it was where we had met. Like all couples, we loved making a pilgrimage to the source. We endlessly relived the beautifully incredible circumstances that had one day brought us together at the same moment on the same path. It had been love at first sight, striking like lightning, in the luminous lobby. She was on vacation with her father, and I was visiting luxury hotels to feed my dreams (I was actually staying at the youth hostel). We later got married and had two children: Victor and Victoria. The years passed, and we tried as best we could to kept lassitude at bay by taking a vacation from our relationship. We played roles. This year, we imagined that she was the wife of a dentist who met up with me during her husband’s conventions (true, it was not the most credible of scenarios). And I had vaguely improvised a podiatrist wife. We had had better moments, I admit. I was a bit worried about our relationship – we were lacking a bit of imagination. Next year, we would really have to be much more creative.