from Vol. #8, Issue 2: Summer 2017
translated from German by Timothy DeMarco
Please Do Not Disturb, I Am Currently Experiencing a Sleep Revolution
by Thorsten Nagelschmidt
The camera I took most of these pictures with was knocked out of my hand one night in Augsburg by an Ibis Hotel employee. I was with the author John Niven on a reading tour for his new novel The Second Coming, an action-packed story about religious fundamentalism and American talent shows.
My assignment was to moderate the evening and to read a few chapters from the German translation. That's because John Niven doesn't speak German, with the exception of a few culinary terms such as "Schweinehaxe," "Schnitzel" or "Semmelknödel." Technically speaking, he also doesn't speak English, but rather Scottish. For the audience this represented quite a challenge. Laughter was often delayed and many guests only laughed because the person sitting next to them laughed. I had observed this very closely throughout the tour. The reactions to his lecture ran like a wave through the audience. Some even suspected that Niven wasn't even reading real sentences from his book, but instead was just improvising in some obscure language he made up on the spot. Even I had difficulties following him sometimes, and we had already been traveling together for over a week.
Anyway, Augsburg. The Catholic bishops' city and especially its prominent hardline conservative archbishop Walter Mixa fit exceptionally well in Niven's new novel. Just a few months prior, Mixa had resigned due to allegations of sexual abuse by former children's home residents, and it was with great pleasure that we followed him here. Countless points of attack ran like a golden thread through our ninety minutes on stage.
Our original plan to head directly back to the hotel afterwards fell through once again, since a few charming fans informed us that Grandmaster Flash was in the city. The Grandmaster Flash, hip-hop pioneer, legendary DJ member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-what was this character doing in Bavaria, why wasn't he lying beside a pool in the sun somewhere? I wondered if he still had it, if he still looked as good as ever. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to find out. His performance at an Augsburger club was already over, as we heard from a young man who was heading back from the event and who dismissed it with a blasé, "You didn't miss anything."
"Doesn't matter," the fans told us. Instead they were going to show us their local bar. With the name "Golden Glimmer Bar," one definitely could not pass it up-cute fans, Gold, Glimmer, Bar! You only live once, or so I'm told!
In the surprisingly pleasant establishment, Niven was served a local whiskey, which passed his Scottish aficionado's judgment, as was eventually and enthusiastically communicated to us with imitations and gesticulations.
"Vielen Prost!" he called out all around, and one local whiskey later even I had some problems with my colleague's expressions. Didn't matter. I was used to it and in these conditions I found anything he had to say good anyway.
We arrived back at our hotel at around four in the morning. Niven was complaining of heartburn and asked the man at the reception desk for milk.
"Milk? Now?!" he bellowed.
"Yes, please, would you be so kind?"
My companion might have possessed a rough Scottish working-class humor, but also the finest British upper-class manners. You could picture him just as easily at the barricades of a miners' strike as at the Queen's table. He affectionately called me pet names such as "bastard" and "cocksucker" and I knew that he only said that to people of whom he was especially fond. He was even more impatient than I am, could puff away an entire cigarette in the 20 meters from the train station to the cabstand and seemed to implode if we had to wait even one minute for a taxi receipt, wifi code, or menu. In such instances he hissed incoherent noises in my direction or texted me a short message, mainly about how he was "this close" to annihilating the entire human race. But he never let out his anger on the service industry, which made traveling with him very pleasant.
The receptionist grudgingly poured a bit of milk in a glass and slammed it on the counter.
"Hier, your Milch!"
I estimated him to be in his late forties, he spoke a Swabian dialect with maybe a hint of Arabic and had only a rudimentary English ability. Niven finished the glass in one gulp and politely asked for the menu. In a rude tone he was told that there was nothing to eat at this hour. I had to translate this reply for him.
Glancing at the large sign next to the elevator, which promised snacks and warm meals around the clock, Niven asked me what the "24/7" next to the meals could possibly mean, and, additionally, definitely not for the first time on this tour: "Why is that guy so rude?"
I mainly try to ignore the unpleasant impertinence of clerks and service industry workers, because I don't want to fall into the just as unpleasant lack-of-service-culture-Germany canon of "The Customer is Always Right." I don't want to get constantly all worked up over the condescending behavior of train conductors, cops, taxi drivers or waiters every time they're rude or unfriendly, because it doesn't help anyway. This hotel employee, however, was so nasty, that I had to point out to him that my friend didn't speak German and, besides, he just asked a totally normal question. I did so in a friendly way, but in no way, shape or form so exaggerated that it could be interpreted as unfriendly. Just plain friendly. Because apparently friendliness is a boomerang.
Not in Augsburg.
"Two euros for the milk," he said in German.
Niven was adamant about getting something to eat. I offered him a chocolate bar, which had been in my pocket for a week, but to no avail. And so it went back and forth for a while until I eventually laid a two-euro coin on the counter for the hotel employee, who, by this time, was scrubbing the sink with exaggerated surly motions. "And now," he said without even looking up, "Leave me alone. Get lost."
"Oh, fuck off," I said resignedly, and turned around to leave.
Then he looked up, chucked the sponge into the sink, jumped out from behind the reception counter and squared up with balled fists. I was dumbfounded. Did this man want to sock me?
The small town in West Germany where I grew up had no university-instead it had three army bases. Growing up, I constantly had to fight with soldiers, Nazis, and other thugs. Violence was normal, short tempers were a strategic advantage, and the saying "Offense is the best defense" was for a long time an important rule of thumb for me. Literally. If I were in this situation twenty years ago, I probably would have just coldcocked the guy before he could have done it to me. But I moved beyond these learned reactions, once I realized I was on my way to becoming just like the people I despised. It was a huge part of my psychological development, and had significant meaning for my self-esteem as a boondocks- and backwoods-survivor.
As for the reflexes, they were all still there. I noticed that here in the lobby of the Ibis hotel, with a guy who was provoking me with such a tough-guy demeanor, that the tough-guy in me found it impossible to just turn around and give in. All the same, I was able to control myself enough so that, instead of raising my fist, I raised my camera. I turned it on with my index finger, held the lens in front of the guy's face and, with a smile, snapped the photo. He lunged, smacked my camera out of my hand, and stormed back to the counter.
"That's enough now, I'm calling the police," he yelled.
"Go ahead," I encouraged him, as I picked up the Nikon from the ground and determined that the zoom on the lens no longer extended.
Niven grabbed his head with both hands, speechless. "Are you fucking de-rang-ed, you cunt?" he screamed. "You are gon-na lose your fu-cking job!"
I noticed that the Scotsman appeared to suddenly be able to articulate himself completely clearly, but that would have to be examined further at a later point. The receptionist paused for a second, hesitated, dropped the receiver back onto the phone and stared at us blankly. It pissed me off so much that I took out my mobile and dialed a number that I never wanted to have to dial: 1-1-0, the police. It felt just as shitty as I had always imagined.
We had come noisily from the street into the lobby, the receptionist explained to the police officer who arrived shortly afterwards, then I verbally abused him, took out my camera and threw it on the ground. I didn't comment on this nonsense. For me, it had just become uncomfortable. The police officer checked our IDs, gave us each other's addresses and urged us to settle it amongst ourselves.
"They just come in here and harass me; they aren't even staying here!" the guy whined as we already stood in front of the elevator.
"What?" I said. "Of course we're staying here! Why else would we be at an Ibis at four in the morning?"
The guy's pupils flickered back and forth between us and the police. His jaw almost fell to the floor as soon as he understood. His aggression turned into fear, the fear turned into panic, and through the closing elevator doors, I saw him frantically following the police officers to the street.
"Hey, your room's much nicer than mine!" Niven said, as we both went through the events of the whole story over our last cigarette. That's what I learned in the small town: a ten-second fight was followed by at least a half-hour-long shit-talking with the opponent, which carried over seamlessly to a critique of each maneuver with the members of your own team. It's an unwritten law of small town fights.
"Really?" I answered, looked around and at the same time was annoyed at the slowness of my brain. The arrangement of particleboard furniture disguised as beech wood, the poisonous turquoise of the curtains, chair, and nightstand trim, the narrow contoured artificial shelf in front of the window, and the most recent edition of the TV guide "Hörzu" next to the TV-Ibis rooms all across Germany are exactly the same.
"Morgenmuffel? Unser leckeres Frühstück heitert sie garantiert auf!" read a sticker on the mirror. Niven giggled. No idea if it was because of the sentence itself, what had just happened, or my not-exactly-flawless translation of "Morning Muffel? Our yummy breakfast will in every case cheer you up!" because he suddenly became silent. There was a knock on the door. Obviously I had hung the "Please do not disturb"-sign on the door. On the Ibis version of the sign, it was enhanced with the puzzling sentence "I am currently experiencing a sleep revolution."
The receptionist was standing in the hallway and wanted to talk. Through the closed door I made it clear to him that I did not want to talk and that I just wanted to finally experience my sleep revolution. We heard him stomp away and laughed at the picture on the display of my camera, which showed an uncontrollable madman one second before he attacked; a complete moron, who was now going to be fired because he attacked a hotel guest. A picture that I have looked at a lot since the event, but can only present here as a sketch, as a result of what happened next:
The phone rang. I picked up the receiver and hung it back up. Niven retired to his room and I opened my laptop. On eBay there was a 105 millimeter lens offered for 180 euros.
My first thought: "Fuck! 180 euros!"
The second, and significantly more long-term thought: "On the other hand. "
Such a fuss over 180 euros? And for that, someone should lose their job? And anyway: to put a camera in the face of an enraged person and click, no wonder the reaction after such a provocation, and what was that all about anyway, calling the cops? Was it really necessary?
When adrenaline and testosterone have left the playing field, the fighting spirit quickly dies away. Then the doubt appears as anger and aggression are overcome by reflection and empathy. Another thing I knew from earlier in life.
"I'm really sorry, I don't know what got into me," I told the guy as I stood in front of the reception desk.
Somehow he didn't look mad at all anymore, just pretty dejected and really exhausted. He said he had had a 12-hour shift and a family to feed, that he earned 1400 euros a month and that every other night drunks who didn't even stay at the hotel showed up and wanted to keep drinking. He had thought that we were just messing with him with the milk, that he had just lost it and that he was really sorry. Then he noticed the pack of Gauloises in my hand: "Can I get one?"
We smoked in front of the entrance on the street. He asked what actually brought me to Augsburg, and I told him that we were authors and were on a reading tour and that the constant unfriendliness of this country was embarrassing for me in front of my Scottish colleague and that I wanted to apologize for my "Fuck off!"
"No shit!" he said, "You're authors? I've also written two books, in Persian, about Islamic fundamentalism; they're banned in Iran."
I told him that Niven's new novel was also about religious fundamentalism, of the Christian variety, and about my childhood friend Houtan, the son of Iranian refugees, and about the combat boots his father gave me when I turned 14, the ones he wore in the Iran-Iraq War, which I wore proudly for years. He asked me what their family name was, and I said: "Sarlak," and he said he knew a few Sarlaks in Tehran, and I said: "Sorry, man, I'm obviously not going to tell the managers about our fight, but my camera's broken and I'm pretty broke," and he said: "I have 40 euros on me;" I said: "Keep it," I had gotten the camera as a gift anyway, and he said: "Okay, but let me know what the repairs cost and I'll mail you the money," and I said that I had another idea: I remembered a friend who worked for a camera rental shop and who could maybe repair the camera for pretty cheap. "It'll be no problem," I said to him, and he said, "Do it as cheaply as you can," and I said: "Yeah, for sure, no worries, I have your address, I'll get ahold of you." Then we went back inside.
"Amir," he said and extended his hand.
"Nagel," I said and took his hand.
"Nagel," he said, "that was my first cigarette in ten years. Good night."
We shook hands. I went up to my room. I still had a few hours for the sleep revolution.
>> Published in German under the title “Bitte nicht stören, ich erlebe gerade eine Schlafrevolution,” in Nagelschmidt's third book Drive-By Shots, a collection of stories and photos from his travels (Ventil Verlag, 2015).
>> read the German text of this story
>> read the translator's note
Thorsten Nagelschmidt, better known as Nagel, is an author, musician, and artist. He grew up in Munster and lives in Berlin and Hamburg. Until 2009, he was the singer, lyricist and guitarist of the band Muff Potter, releasing seven albums and playing more than 600 shows all over Europe. His debut novel, Wo die wilden Maden graben, was published in 2007. His second novel, Was kostet die Welt, was published by Heyne in 2010 and a musical version of the novel was released on the label Audiolith. An English translation is currently in the works. Nagel has had numerous exhibitions of his linoleum print series Raucher (Smokers), and a new novel is in the works. Online at his offical website and on Facebook and Twitter.
About the translator: Tim DeMarco received his bachelor's degree in German from Georgetown University and his master's degree in German Language and Literature from Middlebury College. He has lived, worked and studied in Tübingen, Dresden and Mainz. He currently lives at the Jersey Shore where he teaches German at a high school and a university. His translations have been published by Your Impossible Voice and Comteq Publishing. Connect with him online at www.timdemarco.com.
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