Friday 25 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #4

My first week in Berlin comes to a close. Mid-Monday morning I find myself once again traipsing through the streets of the city with my khaki bag slung over my shoulder, packed full of clothes and books and a resentful, unopened Kindle. It is not raining this time.

I have had to leave some possessions at the first hostel. As the check-out time ticked closer – the staff there were uncharacteristically strict about the check-out time –and I struggle to fit in my fairly modest collection of belongings alongside a tub of yoghurt and flyers from Berlin, in a moment of packing fury I flung my 2013 weekly planner and Fraktur copy of ‘Emil und die Detective’ onto Jann’s bed and leave the room. In a couple of days I missed both these items, and others that I didn’t leave intentionally.

 It is only a short distance to the new hostel and with the fresh air of new beginnings blowing upon me I was almost trotting. This hostel is as cheap as the first, but shares few other characteristics. Whereas the first was for drinking, partying and crashing, an extension of – or warm-up for, university halls - the second is a place of feasting and reading and sharing romantic and misty stories in the evening. It was established by two Americans who came to Berlin thirty years ago, loved it so much they moved here, inviting first friends and then friends of friends, and then anyone to come and stay, and share this city with them. I do not spot this mythical couple during my time at the hostel but their mark is everywhere.

           Up grey and grimy stairs akin to that of the first hostel, drafty and empty in an accidental fashion, opening up at the top is a long room that – contrasted with the playpen square that was the entrance to the first hostel – acts as reception, sitting room, kitchen and banquet hall. Rickety wooden cupboards make up the kitchen and large, communal, wooden tables support great smorgasbords throughout the day. This is a place for yoga; hippies and campfires and resounding choruses of Kumbaya. There are many sofas, not bright and squishy but faded and torn and hard in parts where springs have been bent out of place. Free coffee is provided all day, cheerily brewed by the hostel staff who one comes to recognise by the choice of music they play from the tinny stereo player. (One woman grows to become a particular favourite of mine with her selection of popular musicals in German.) The room is incredibly light as one wall is made up completely of big windows, one of which you climb up to and scramble out of to get on to the terrace with plants and benches and bird baths looking over the hub of the U-bahnhof below; traffic lights, and building works, kebab and phone shops offering cheap calls to Turkey.
            When I arrive I drop my stuff down in the dorm (sixteen mattresses again, though here they lie empty in the day) and after a second weekly trip to Kaisers I settle down on a table with my laptop, stroke a cup of coffee with one hand, a few readers and scribblers dotted about me, and begin searching for internships.

             My sense of time lapses as patchy internet connection and the complexity of Craig’s List in German tires me. As I am settling into another brown study my ears pick up to the familiar bass tones of Hot Chocolates’ ‘You Sexy Thing.’ Into this drowsy torpor, eyes numbed by the screen, head still echoing with Jean Valjean’s Saxon lamentations, comes something of a world far away, whether it is Top of the Pops in the 70s or The Full Monty or dad’s cassette player. It is only a quiet backdrop but a lone foot begins to silently tap across from me and shortly afterwards a couple of heads start to nod in subliminal approval; a few shoulders begin to bop and one head-nod turns into a soft bounce, like that of a lazy Churchill dog on a dashboard. Eyes look up from books into the middle distance and maps and pens begin to jiggle as with a slight serious pout one of the readers looks around and passed other faces of unabashed enjoyment as the tune takes hold. The beat expresses itself in legs and torsos and mouths indulgently miming the words as eyes catch each other and spur on this communal expression of shared appreciation; an air guitar begins to strum and a silent chorus emerges, as an infectious swagger and strut takes hold in this odd little hostel, taking us home, taking us back.

            Alas, the song fades too quickly and each soon returns to his own little matters. I close the tab on Craig’s List and commence sending emails to loved-ones. As it begins to darken outside I look forward to a comfortable evening and climb out of the window for a cigarette on the terrace. I look over the rooftops of Kreuzberg as the sun sets. As I smoke I recognise the blonde girl sitting down on a bench five feet from me, talking to a chirpy girl called Gerty from Holland. I met Gerty as we struggled up the stairs together that morning. She sports a jungle of curly golden hair on her hard which bounces about her face, like the ears of an excited spaniel, as she nods and grins and squawks in appreciation at the funny world that appears around her. It was a mass of these curls that I first saw, quivering above a great rucksack that appeared to be propping itself up in a corner of the stairwell that morning. Tentatively approaching I came to see the bright red face of Gerty, struggling for air, the other side of the bag that was almost the same size as her. She raised a trembling hand in salute when she saw me and managed to say: ‘Where’s a good dumbwaiter when you need one, eh?’ I wasn’t sure if she was being witty or was muddled over the correct terminology. I asked if she was OK and she said she was and raising herself up from the wall with a grin went to tackle the stairs again, but in the process of passing me, wedged us stuck for a few awkward moments in the narrow staircase, wriggling and apologising. We eventually freed ourselves and were soon tumbling together into reception.

           Back on the terrace, I imagined the girl sitting with Gerty must have been from the first hostel, however as I turn around to head back inside I hear the words ‘pub crawl’ and realise that she was the moody promoter who accompanied Leo and the basset hound the week before.  I turn back around and approach them.

           Introducing myself Gerty cheerily shakes my hand and says, ‘Yes, from this morning – my fellow mountaineer!’ while the blonde girl nodded slowly as she drew on her cigarette. She says, ‘You came on the Pub Crawl last week.’ I told her that yes I did and I had a great time and I was wondering how I would go about becoming a promoter for them. (I had already sent the company a couple of unanswered emails enquiring about work, and then got lost trying to locate their office behind Warschauer Stra├če.) The blonde girl introduced herself as Ela from Poland and told me that the best way was to come along that night and talk to her boss.

            She nodded. I hoped that my remembrance of the name would be a point in my favour. Ela told me that she was leaving at 9. I said I would see her then and returned inside, wrenching my mood from the lethargy it had been languishing in since my arrival that morning. I bought a beer and aware that Ela was lingering nearby quickly shoehorned my way into a conversation, talking loudly and trying to look like I was irrepressibly sociable and fun-loving and at ease persuading people that they were the same.  I spent the next couple of hours plonking myself down next to people and flittered about the hostel, always smiling, laughing and trying to make them laugh whenever Ela walked by. She sat sulkily in the far end of the room most of the time. I watched as individuals tentatively approached her, even the people from this place drawn to her long blonde hair, ashy-auburn eyes and midnight, Russian, winter hat.

            At 9.15 we set of from the hostel and I skipped my way to the front of the throng and chatted to Ela about the Pub Crawl. She told me that they are no longer allowed to promote at the first hostel because of an ‘incident.’ She doesn’t tell me much but enough for me ascertain that the hostel proprietors had taken offence to the intimidation techniques of the Bulgarian.

          ‘Each have their own methods,’ Ela said, shrugging. She doesn’t smile once when I am with her, and avoids looking at me with her big painted eyes. But I think that I like her, and that given time, like some of the frosty Polish girls I used to work with in Bath, she would come to like me, and we would sit and smoke together and she would smile patronisingly at my frivolity and I would shiver contentedly in her crispy company.

          ‘They told me they were going to fire me after my first week,’ she continues. ‘But then I got lucky and brought in twenty Scottish soldiers.’ 

          As we approach Garth he calls out, ‘Alright guys! Where are you all from!’ And I shout back ‘London!’ and bop excitedly in the crowd as he takes us through the nights itinerary: three bars, one awesome club, free entry, free shots with every drink, litre cocktails, a shisha with the fifth drink you buy, Beer-Pong! Flipcup! 12€ and unlimited return!

         Once all the others have received their wrist bands and been herded inside the bar I approach Garth with Ela and she introduces me and says that I want to become a promoter. Garth casually says ‘cool’ and tells me to come al ong to their meeting the next day at Frankfurter Tor.

        ‘5.30. On the steps by the second-hand clothes shop.’

         ‘I’ll be there!’

          Inside I meet two of the other promoters: Mike from Shannon, who I recognise but can’t place, and Mo from Birmingham. Mike has long ratty hair and a stubbly spotted face. He smells of stale smoke and is wearing odd shoes and a worn-out grey hoody. He is extremely friendly and chatty and with his smiling dry lips and yellowing, misshaped teeth he welcomes me on board the Crawl. Mo, in comparison has a great bushel of jet black hair and smooth skin that glows in the light. He is wearing full winter gear, a big puffer jacket, zipped down just enough to see the multiple layers beneath and the sparkling laminated card that also hangs from the necks of Mike and Ela. He shakes my hand and welcomes me to Berlin, saying that if ever I want to crash at his when I get tired of hostels I am welcome. ‘You can just whack up a camp-bed in my room. Or, hey, if you don’t want to buy one of those, jump in my bed!’ And he laughs. He offers me his number and, despite thinking this is all a bit forward I take it readily.

        ‘The work isn’t bad,’ Mike tells me as we sit down with our discounted beers. ‘It’s a good laugh, y’know. You are essentially just going out to hostels, drinking and chatting with their guests. The girls can be great as well. I’m telling you man, some of the action I’ve had …’ he falls into gruff chuckles shaking his head and smiling. ‘You spend the evening with them and then that’s it! You aren’t going to see them ever again! Unless they come back as Returners which is no good to anyone as no-one gets commission for Returners. One night I told this group of girls from Bruges that I was actually an undercover journalist for a magazine here, writing about the Pub Crawl. That backfired though. They didn’t trust from that moment on. I thought it would be attracted to the whole stealth-thing. But they weren’t having any of it. I tell you though, the girls from Shannon would have gone crazy for that shit!’

         Onwards to the next bar we go, and as the evening progresses with Beer-Pong and more turquoise shots, by the time we reach the club I have fallen into the pleasure of being abroad and the numbing comfort of it not mattering.

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2013

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