Friday 4 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #1

           The city is wet and cold like England but the hostel is warm with sleep and the compound of baggage and bodies everywhere. Heat like this is found in Prague and Amsterdam and Budapest and Romania, but I have arrived in Berlin.

           ‘To go to Berlin was the aspiration of the composer, the journalist, the actor’- this from Peter Gay’s ‘Weimar Culture’, a section of which I read upon my flight from Gatwick - ‘[W]ith its superb orchestras, its hundred and twenty newspapers, its forty theatres, Berlin was the place for the ambitious, the energetic, the talented. Wherever they started, it was in Berlin that they became, and Berlin that made them famous …’[1]

Confident that the energy and opportunities of such a place exists, almost a century on, and through two World Wars and one great wall, I cry out to family and friends: ‘See you all in five years’ time!’ and with my big bag slung over my shoulder - neither the backpackers backpack nor the holiday maker's suitcase – I set off. (I love this bag and smile as I catch a glimpse of myself as I leave my room with it slung around my shoulder in the mirror; a grand thing in faded khaki with strong handles and a weak zip; once my father’s from his army days, I imagine, and later used to ferry spades and cricket bats down to the beach before it was commissioned to hold my laundry at university.) I feel like David Copperfield, Pip, or Oliver Twist, heading towards the Great Metropolis! I am ready to work hard, I say to myself, to have sore feet and hands and fall in to frequenters of houses of skulduggery and ill-repute and scuffle claw and dagger, and in time to triumph, to weep and find love between grubby houses and plush living rooms.

There had been moments of doubt.

I was in Berlin in August, visiting a friend and making a quick reconnoitre. Keen to show off my German I said to her: ‘Was bis du von Beruf? Ich bin arbeitslos!’

‘Oh! Don’t say that. No-one in Berlin wants to hear that!’

The vim with which she referred to this animosity towards the unemployed unnerved me a little. But back in London while I drank and danced with Isherwood and dodged and ducked with le Carré, watched German films and listened to Rammstein, I was certain that Berlin was right for me and I was right for Berlin and I booked my flight and began a little research on employment in the city. Despite all this preparation, when I arrive in Berlin and I see the threatening rain slap against the windows of the plane and I slip on the slabs at Schönefeld Airport and struggle with the ticket machine as a muttering and finger-drumming line grows, and tingling bells are rung furiously at me by aggrieved cyclists, this city truly does appear Dickensian in its size and hostility, and I recognise that I really am falling at its feet and asking, humbly, for a chance.

After the grubby S-Bahn to Ostkreuz and the rickety U1 from Warschauerstaße I eventually find the hostel, and the cold, grimy stairway upwards is as grey as the sky and concrete outside. However on reaching the third floor I am met with a trifle of colour and warmth as I enter reception. With the brightly coloured walls and furniture the place looks like the set of the Tweenies. I am called forward by a soft, lethargic receptionist wearing a trilby and waistcoat, cropped blond hair and crystal blue vacant eyes. Check-in takes a couple of seconds and a signature and I am pointed towards my dormitory. It is quiet inside with the sound of heavy breathing and people rummaging in bags. I try to locate the showers and as I get lost I pass collapsed bodies lolling on sofas, curled up in chairs or propped up against the wall hugging their backpacks. Occasionally one more alive engages one of the fallen in a semi-conscious conversation: ‘Hey, remember … this is where Tim and Andy slept …’ And they dreamily reminisce on the nights before and one tells the other that they are leaving for Prague that day.

I venture out into Kreuzberg. I am told that Kreuzberg was heavy and rough in the 80s and 90s, famous for its cheapness and liberty and May Day riots, and has more of a reputation across German than towns three times its size. Perhaps more than anywhere else in Berlin, Kreuzberg was much cooler fifteen years ago. Most of Berlin I quickly find out was cooler fifteen years ago. I fear that the world of Herr Lehman cannot be found here at all; and that me, like many others, are like the fools who wander around Notting Hill attempting to find the blue door. Kneipes, that I am told can be found on every street corner - an Eckkneipe, I believe - are no more common than hostels and backpacker lounges. The like of me have moved in and destroyed what we seek, though we may convince ourselves - as we walk past graffiti and derelict buildings and smoke indoors – that we are living in the real Kreuzberg.

I don’t think too much about this however as I wander down Oranienstraße, wet and hungry, and into the quiet stalls of Kaisers. I collect a few groceries: cheese, tomatoes, bread, Nescafé Gold Blend. Queuing up at the cashier I notice that there are no plastic bags on offer the other end, but only material ones to buy this end. Though I was not prepared for this it pleased me. Tescos offer an assortment of long-term sturdy material bags at their check-outs as well (though they also still provide the plastic). I fully support the attempt to reduce plastic-bag-wastage and as I am also forgetful, I am now the owner of about twelve of different varieties of Tescos’ material ones, not one of which was with me in Berlin. However I was wearing my big Berlin coat and reckon that I will be able to squeeze most of my basket into the pockets and carry the surplus in my arms.

There was a sweet old lady in front who smiled at me and I smiled back and I smiled more when she carefully counted out her change in her wrinkled palm and transferred pieces one-by-one to the hard and shining hand of the cashier. My smile faltered however as I caught the eyes of the latter who had already been pissed off by the punk customer before who had paid for a couple of sticks of chewing gum with a €20 note, and now was making it clear that she had limited patience for any games I might want to play. I was a little nervous as she aggressively scanned my groceries and sent them tumbling down the other side. When she barked out the price I was certain she had said ‘zwolf Euro sechzig’ and repeated it to make sure but then she screeched something else out that sounded completely different. She began jabbing her finger repeatedly at the flashing numerals on the screen and I took the misguided decision to ignore this, determined to pay as any normal German would.  I kept faith with ‘zwolf Euro sechzig’ and began trailing through notes and coins while she spoke more German at me and everyone’s eyes were on me. It was very embarrassing. Eventually she snatched a €20 note from my hand and dropped the rest back clattering in front of me followed swiftly by my change. I was shuffled on by the next customer in the irritable line as pennies rolled down upon my sad, patient little pile of groceries. I squashed what I could into my pockets and hugging the rest to my chest rushed out into the city, thankful that, as long as they didn’t speak to me, these Germans would assume that I was just as at home here as they.

I tell myself that there is not a moment of time to loose in conquering this language and set down to study as soon as I have labelled and pushed my food into the crowded fridge back at the hostel. This enthusiasm for learning presently stalls, and I think of Mark Twain’s invectives against the language which renders 'turnip' feminine but 'girl' neuter. On top of this I don’t feel books and pens are welcome in this flamingo-fermented environment and push my paper and coloured flashcards further into my lap, attempting to look inconspicuous, and as relaxed as those around me, nonchalantly learning the difference between the demonstrative and dative. After an hour or so I throw it down and tell myself that success lies in practise, not theory, and so approach reception to ask about laundry. She looks a little fearful, almost repulsed listening to my German, but she understands and answers steely in perfect English. 

'Searching for a flat are you?' she asks.

'In time!' I say. Finding work was the first thing on the list. 

She stares at me blankly. I smile at her an leave.

Exhausted I fall upon one of the big bright sofas to read. Around the two coffee tables there were about seven guys, all silent as they tapped away on laptops and tablets. As the evening rolls in another of different stock sits down next to me and begins fidgeting, picking up, turning a few pages and then putting down a magazine in front of him, looking around and drumming on the table and trying to find someone else as unoccupied as him. He has trusting green eyes behind glasses and is pale and lanky, like a stretched frog. He is wearing a woollen jumper with white hairs hopping across dark blue, and wears deep read trousers that hug his slim thighs and collect about his ankles. Putting down my book for a moment to reach for my beer he leapt upon the chance and introduced himself as Joseph from Canterbury. He tells me that he is waiting for his girlfriend to join him in Berlin and together they hope to find work and a flat in Berlin. After I have told him that I am doing the same thing and he asks a few questions he leans towards me and says:

‘Berghain.’ The full-stop is audible. ‘Have you been? I’ve heard it’s incredible.’ I tell him I haven’t been.

One of the tappers speaks up.

‘Berghain.’ He has a Canadian accent. I could hear his full stop as well. He is wearing a baseball cap and doesn’t look up from his screen. ‘Insane.’

Joseph leaned towards him, his eagerness matched in its extremity by the indifference of the other.

‘Tell me.’

‘It can’t be described.’ And he raises his head and looks into Joseph’s eyes.

Joseph waits, certain that it can be. ‘The first time I went, the first thing I saw when I got in was this man, completely naked, lying on a table about the size of these here, just jacking off. A coffee table just like this.’ His eyes narrow slightly at Joseph. ‘If you think you’re going to be weirded out by such things you’re not going to get in.’

Joseph let out a jocular laugh and bounced on the sofa. ‘So you didn’t get turned away!’

‘I did at first,’ the Candian says quietly, and looks down at his screen. ‘But the feeling you get when you have got in, when the door has been opened and you walk in and go through the drug check, and you pay, and the cloak room, and you can already hear the music and know that behind those doors are thousands of sweating dancing bodies …. Of course Berghain isn't the only place in this city worth going to.’

He goes on to tell us about ‘The Labyrinth’ which isn’t a club but a place inside a club. Here you find a particular man and say a couple of selected words as you hand him a €10 and he takes you to ‘The Labyrinth’, where you are blindfolded then left amongst tunnels and ropes and cracks in walls to make your way out. Like Saw, but you pay for this with money as oppose to blood. And of course you are drinking.

‘It took me forty-five minutes to get out.’

I wasn’t sure if this was slow or fast or particularly impressive either way so just nodded silently with a thoughtful, understanding expression.

‘Best thing I’ve ever done.’

Joseph turns to me. ‘I’m hoping to head out tonight, but I wasn’t sure where-’

‘Too late for The Labyrinth mate,’ the Canadian says ‘You want to get there early. Six or seven.’

I am meeting my friend that evening to celebrate my arrival in the city, and so have leave Joseph twitching in the lounge as the Canadian gives up more sage advice on going out in Berlin.

My friend is late, so instead of pacing in front of the church I enter a bar that I spotted the other side of the road as I left the hostel. I am greeted not by a large and balding landlord behind the counter with a square cigar poking out of his mouth, but instead a small bar girl with piercings in both eyebrows below a woolly black hat and thick dark jumper. She has a pale, pointed face, like a shrewd snow fox and when I enter is drinking a herbal tea from a glass mug and smoking a cigarette.

‘Kann ich eine Bier haben, bitte?’

I like her straight away and believe she likes me too. She starts jabbering away about the largers she has. I stutter out, ‘Was emphelen Sie?’ and to my joy she starts tapping on one nodding her head and speaking German words I don’t know. ‘Super! Diese hier bitte!’

            Buoyed on my successful German I rolled and lit a cigarette and, when my friend text me to say she would be later still, I ordered another beer - ‘noch eines, bitte’, which she understood – and when I began rolling another cigarette and realised I had no filters she passed the packet of hers and her lighter and I lit it and thanked her and thought, fuck fifteen years ago, this is like Herr Lehmann right now. I do belong here, and say to myself, Ich bin Berliner! and smile in the knowledge that I will never make JFK’s mistake, and think this sprawling town can be mine, this stone and paint and flesh, these streets and circles, these walls and smoky Kneipes. In time.

         ‘Noch eines, bitte.’

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2013

[1] Peter Gay, ‘Weimar Culture: The Outside as Insider’, (1969), Great Britain, Secker and Warbung.

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