i’m sebastian michael, i work in theatre, film and across media as a writer, director and producer. i live in london.
Why did you apply?
an old friend of mine from switzerland who now lives in new york (and who had first got me onto pen tales) told me about the hemingway room and i thought this would be an ideal opportunity to go and spend a few days there and use the visit to write something, inspired by my stay. i’d been to berlin before, but never with an ‘artistic brief’, as it were. i love berlin and i’ve always felt a particular connection to it because my grandmother was from berlin but left for switzerland as a very young woman. my dad was born in berlin but he never lived there and my grandmother never went back after the war – for her the city had been ruined by first the nazis and then by the separation into east and west. at the time of her death, in the early 1980s, the thought of a german reunification was virtually inconceivable. so berlin, especially what used to be east berlin, has many poignant facets for me, and while i also never lived there, i feel at least one branch of my roots reaches to this city, and right to the beginning of its most troubled period in history.
When did you come to Berlin?
on the 1st december 2011, staying for four nights.
What did you do in Berlin?
i decided to come with no agenda and just see what happens. one of the first things that happened, while i was still on my way, was that a friend who by coincidence was also in berlin, and my niece who was doing a practice placement near dresden, both got in touch, wanting to hook up. also in berlin was the friend from new york who had told me about pen tales and the hemingway room. so in no time did i have a social schedule. and then there was the magnificent party i and my friend and two of his friends were allowed to gatecrash. the rest of the time i spent having breakfast (at the november café, just round the corner from the hemingway room, recommended), going to the theatre (the bat studio, also recommended: a drama school with a great performance space and a very inexpensive bar), strolling around the kulturbrauerei (directly opposite the hemingway room), where i discovered elk sausages, and writing.
What did you work on whilst being in Berlin?
much in the spirit of not setting an agenda, i also didn’t think about, or let alone decide on, what i was going to write in advance. i considered this my chance to literally just go somewhere with an open mind and, metaphorically, with a ‘blank sheet of paper’. the only parameters i had set myself, and that i had promised louisa and the hemingway room, was to write three short texts.
it then so happened that on the day i arrived, christa wolf died. i had never heard of her before, but that changed rapidly, as she was front-page news in berlin and the berliner zeitung ran a two-page tribute to her. i spent my first morning in berlin reading up about her and as i did so it became very clear very quickly that berlin itself was going to be the subject of my three texts. the themes of the city’s past, present and future, of its significance for me and my family, of the stories i’d heard about it and that i felt i almost remembered myself, even though they were pure evocations by someone else, the curious and really quite unique position it holds in europe, in the world even, and certainly in my heart, all these came rushing to the fore as i was learning about this most influential of german writers. this also prompted my decision to write both in german and in english. i hardly ever write in german these days. i was interested now in also taking this opportunity to ‘reconnect’ with the language i’d more or less grown up with (my actual mother tongue is swiss german) and that i’d written my first plays, my first novella and of course my first poetry in. so what emerged, over the duration of my stay at the hemingway room, was what is now call the berlin triptych, which consists of three short texts about berlin, one in german, one in english and one with both languages melding together.
What did you think of the project?
i loved it. it combines an almost old-fashioned concept of arts patronage with a very contemporary informality and it provided me with a genuine moment of creative freedom: a simple window in time and space where i was able to open myself up to inspiration and follow through on it.
best moments: talking to a man who has been working on his dissertation here for six years, during which he has so far produced some 30 pages (he reckons he’s got about another 100 pages to go…). buying a theatre ticket, two ‘salamibrötchen’ (continental half sandwiches, with the upper slice missing) and a glass of pinot grigio, and still getting change from a tenner in euros. arriving at a berlin house party at 2:30 in the morning and finding it buzzing with friendly people.
worst moment: waking up a shortly after 1pm on sunday to find a text message from my hostess saying ‘brunch at 1?’ and thinking: ‘my head hurts, i need a shower, i can’t eat anything for at least another four hours and what i hear in the hall out there are the guests arriving…’
conclusion- Berlin is:
still a quarter home to me.
whatever you’d like to get off your chest:
queueing, my friends: if there’s one thing i wish the germans would learn from the british it is how to queue…