journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

Month: September 2015

Homing in on the housing shortage

WE’VE all experienced the desperation of trying to find accommodation in a new city. When places are barely big enough to fit the amount of money you’d need to rent them , it’s time for a rethink. Especially if you’re an arriving theatre director looking for a channel to vent your flat-hunting frustration.

Not sure if the new artistic director of the Münchner Kammerspiele, Matthias Lilienthal, has dossed in any of them, but the pre-premiere piece of his first year at the theatre has sprung up across Munich like mushrooms – sometimes looking a bit like mushrooms as well. The project, Shabby Shabby , points a finger at the dismal – and worsening – housing situation in many trendy cities.

The idea isn’t entirely original – Lilienthal presented it before at the Theater der Welt festival in Mannheim – but it feels pertinent and pressing in Munich, a wealthy city with a dire housing problem. Looking for accommodation here is like attending a casting call on Broadway, and a friend of mine swears she’s seen money quietly changing hands between desperate, hopeful tenants and a smug estate agents.

After receiving more than 250 designs from all over the world, the MK chose 23 to develop. The projects were built at various locations around the inner city, and people can book a night in any of them – with the unfortunate exception of one, called Yellow Submarine, that burned down, quite likely due to arson. As a result, they’ve stepped up security, and the remaining dwellings can be rented out until 13 October. If you’ve ever attempted to book a bed in Munich during the Oktoberfest, you’ll appreciate how useful extra shelter can be.

I took a tour of the Shabby Shabby apartments last weekend. Some were clearly cosier than others, but apart from being sturdy enough to spend the night in, they took camping to a new level, a bit like being able to bed down in a cross between a museum installation and a Druid dolmen.

The structures are only temporary – they need to be dismantled and taken down after the 13th. Do they highlight the need for more – and more affordable – housing in Munich? Do they project a sense of what it’s like to have to huddle in a doorway or under a bridge for warmth and shelter? The recent arrival of thousands of refugees amplifies the significance of having to sleep in makeshift – and torchable – accommodation. But most Shabby Shabby punters can go back to their cosy homes the next evening. Hopefully with a heightened awareness of how lucky it is to have a secure roof over your head, and how vital it is to find ways to provide the same for less fortunate members of society.

Best thing about it  Reliving that tickle of excitement from childhood when you got to spend the night in a treehouse in your best mate’s back garden
Worst thing about it  Obviously, the name – another example of English used in a German context to sound cool, and achieving the opposite.

The dark side

“OH GOD,” cried the man on the park bench, and buried his face in his hands. “God, what am I doing here? What’s the point? What does it all mean?”

The pinstripe-suited woman on the other side of the bench glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Then she wrapped her sandwich, stood up and walked away briskly.

“God, why am I such a loser?” he moaned. “And now I’m even talking to myself.”

“Not entirely,” said a warm and friendly voice. The man looked back at the place where the woman was just sitting. Someone else had plonked himself down. A rather dapper looking man wearing a black leather jacket like his, black jeans like his and black trainers like his. Only the other man’s things looked new. And posh. Like they came from Hugo Boss. Not Lidl, like his.

“Em, do you mind?” said the first man. “I’m having a very private nervous breakdown here.”

“Don’t let me interrupt,” said the dapper, Hugo Boss man. “Only you’re why I’m here.”

“Look mate, I’m not your type. Go hit on someone at the Four Seasons bar.”

“No, I think you’re exactly my type. I’ve been waiting for you for a while.”

‘I deal in the strongest drug of all’

The man looked at Hugo Boss man. Calling the police was not an option. He got up.

“Ah, you don’t want to leave just yet,” said dapper man.

“What do you want?” said Lidl man, suspicious.

“You.” Dapper man smiled. It was an oily smile.

“I told you, I’m not your type.”

“Oh, but you are. You see – sit down,” dapper man said as the other man reconsidered and prepared to make a break for it. “I won’t beat about the bush. I’m Mephistopheles, and I’ve – ”

“You’re messin’ with me?”

“Mephistopheles. Old Nick. I’ve come to help you achieve your wildest dreams.”

“Fuck off.”

“No, really. I can get you anything you want.”

“How about some coke?”

Mephistopheles – formerly dapper man – pulled a small plastic bag out of his smart leather jacket and held it out to his new friend.

“Well, em,” said the first man, pocketing the bag, “actually, I meant Coke. Like in the can? I’m dying of thirst.”

“Don’t go dying on me just yet. We have to seal our bargain first.”

“No bargains.”

Mephistopheles snapped his fingers, then bought a can of Coke from a vendor who instantly walked by them on the path.

“Wouldn’t you like the power to summon everything you want to yourself at any moment? For the rest of your life?”

“Are you a dealer?” asked the first man.

“Of a kind. I deal in the strongest drug of all.”

“Meths? Plutonium?”

“Those are human drugs.”

“Oh, and yours are from Mars, are they?”

“I told you, I’m Mephistopheles. My drug is the human soul. You’re not using yours, and I could certainly make use of it, so how about it? Do we have a deal?”

The first man stared at him, and took a sip of his Coke. “So, you could get me clothes like yours?”

“Better,” grinned Mephistopheles. “Take a look at yourself.”

The first man looked, and widened his eyes. He was now wearing the finest leather, the smartest jeans, the coolest trainers money could buy. Except he hadn’t bought them.

‘That’s like Mary Poppins’s fuckin’ carpet bag’

“Shite!” He took another swig of Coke. “How about a whiskey?”

Mephistopheles pulled a bottle of aged single malt out of his jacket.

“That jacket is like Mary Poppins’s fuckin’ carpet bag.”

“Good old Mary,” said Mephistopheles. “We dated for a while. Then I dumped her for Margaret Thatcher.”

“Sweet,” said the first man.

“So, do we have a deal, Johann?” said Mephistopheles.


“Do we have a deal, Johann?”

“Sorry, my name’s not Owen,” said the first man.

“Yes it is. Johann Faust.”

“No, I’m Nigel. Nigel McPartland. Or Nidge. And Feckface. But at least that’s better than, what was it? Owen Faust? Loser name.”

“But what are you doing here? I’m supposed to encounter Johann Faust on this bench. I’ve been waiting for… well, for ages,” spluttered Mephistopheles, who no longer looked so dapper.

Nidge reached into his new jacket. “Right, it’s still here. This the lad you’re looking for?” He pulled a credit card out of the wallet he retrieved and showed it to Mephistopheles.

“Yes, that’s him. What are you doing with his wallet?”

“I flattened the fucker and stole his car. I was just feeling bad about it when you turned up. I thought you were the fuzz. Nice to see you’re not, though.”

Mephistopheles stroked his chin thoughtfully, and a dapper pointy beard appeared on it beneath his fingers. “Hmmmm.”

“So, deal still on?” asked Nidge. He spat into the palm of his right hand and held it out.

Mephistopheles looked at him. Then he grinned, spat in his hand and grasped Nidge’s. “I think this will turn out just fine,” he said.


 A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight

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