Friday 25 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #5

The next day at 5.20 I arrive at Frankfurter Tor. I had been here the week before, walking up from Warschauer Straße in search of ‘East of Eden’. Somehow, immersed in my map and, presumably, looking east, I completely missed the Tor itself. The Tor (essentially a crossroads between the Karl-Marx-Allee, Frankfurter Allee, Warschauer Straße and Petersburger Straße) is wide, and as a premature Siberian wind bellows under the empty blue sky and down the road between the steps and pillars, the two twin buildings of the Tor cold, broad and resolutely stiff in their awkward bulk.  

Built with the specifications to herald the entrance to the first Soviet Boulevard, the twin buildings were completed in 1956 as part of the ‘Stalinallee’, and – so I read on an information board in the U-bahn station below - are good examples of the Stalinist architectural style. With their regularly-dotted, narrow windows and straight edges they resemble great industrial hospitals, rigid and durable in the wind; impressive and scary, with what looks like stretched bandstands on top, emphasising the quadrangular blocks below. I love walking under these buildings, and yet they offer nothing to grasp onto, no connection or way in. No way out. They sit strong while I shuffle backwards, huddling my shoulders inwards. This seems like a completely inappropriate place to hold Pub Crawl meeting. Maybe it was different in the summer.#

Spotting the second-hand clothes shop that Garth had mentioned, I cross the road and look back towards the city and saw the spectacular site of the Television Tower, the Fernstehturm. I think this is the greatest view of the tower that I have yet come across in Berlin, and in weeks to come, hugging myself in the wind as I shuffled to another meeting on the steps, I would have the pleasure of viewing it at dusk.

I find its alien shape magnetic. It is sinister too; a spiked orange on a stick, the inverse of a Christingle. A sparkling bauble speared and sent high up into the sky as a deterrent to joviality and smooth sides. It is technological in its function, not political like squat Big Ben; nor romantic like the Eiffel Tower, or imbued with the hope of the Statue of Liberty. But it is iconic like all of these. Built when Mitte was firmly part of East Germany, it is both magnificent and terrifying and striking me as I cross Frankfurter Tor, I am spellbound, and stop to stare amidst the traffic.

            In his ‘Berlinblog’, Simon Cole writes of the omnipresence of the Fernsehturm – ‘There it is again, as you cross the street. And over your shoulder as you drink a coffee outside. It’s like being shadowed by an impassive silvery spy.’[1]  I thought of this description the following week, wandering down Hermanstrasse, one place where the Fernsehturm is undoubtedly out of sight, when in the corner of my eye I noticed a television pole or something like an electricity pylon sticking up into the sky and I found myself looking up at it subconsciously expecting to see the tower. This has happened a few times as if part of becoming accustomed to living in the city was having the Fernsehturm stuck in the back of your head. Often in sight as well as in mind, to me it has acted as more of a comfort than an anxiety, leading me back to familiarity when lost in the city, and cheering me when I am cold and tired am waiting form my tram on a Friday or Saturday night, when it sparkles and, as Cole writes, ‘this trophy of the former anti-fun state resembles a glitter ball in a decadent disco.’[2]
           Small and too awkwardly gadgety to be scary, the World Clock, also found at Alexanderplatz, provokes more confusion than wonder. It is odd to think that at this clock, cut off from the rest of the world, from much of their country and their own capital, East Berliners could see what time it was in the rest of the world, and perhaps try to envisage what was going on in Honolulu and Kathmandu.

In Herr Lehmann, two of the characters, from West Berlin, plan to meet up in at the World Clock when they venture into the East. Why there? Herr Lehmann asks. It’s just what people do. That’s where everyone meets in East Berlin. At the World Clock. Because of this I get very excited when my German friend and I plan to meet ‘at Alex, by the World Clock.’ We may as well have been in a film; it was exactly the same, except that there were no cameras and no script. I was early to the World Clock but for a moment I pretended that I was on time and my friend is late and like the girl in the film I will wait and wait and then someone one else will arrive, a dark figure, the back of their black coat in the foreground of the frame. There is literature elsewhere in Berlin, but here it is cinema. I can see little of Dunble’s Alexanderplatz here.

Though not unlovable, Alexanderplatz is ungainly, and at times, utterly soulless. Especially cold in the winter for its wide open spaces and too concrete and busy for one to enjoy the warmth in the summer. It is confusing in its lack of a clear centre and mass of blocked grey buildings amongst a collection of platzes, a little more disagreeable than the one before, each without a centre to grasp onto, seemingly functioning but disorientating. Big, ugly shopping departments offer warmth and colour inside but display only big neon green capitals to the world: ‘GALLERIA’.  Below, also attempting to brighten the scene, men sell Bratwurst under red umbrellas for under a euro and yellow trams roll past at walking pace as pigeons toddle in front.

Venturing just a little further away out of Alexanderplatz I come across St Martin’s Church which I think is beautiful. Once I heard singing from within and tentatively approach the wide wooden doors. However there was a gruff looking keeper there clutching what looked like tickets, so I walked on. Behind the church I wandered and came across the Neptunbrunnen, the Neptune Fountain. Here the God of the Sea sits triumphant upon a craggy throne, surrounded by little boys with physiques like a wingless Eros but tired and fierce face as if they have just been ripped out of warm sea-weed blankets beneath the surface. Angry little eyes and wailing black mouths – shout furiously, pulling at their brothers’ hair and pushing each other off the rocks to the water below. Young men cling to the little island amongst them, cheekily grimacing fawns from the sea; a tortoise, serpent, dolphin and crocodile shoot water from their mouths upon the salty chaos, splashing over twisted faces and green bulging stomachs, not quite reaching the great Cracken who sits proud and regal over the scene. Four woman with robes carefully designed to slip down their torsos just enough to reveal their breasts, sit at the edge of the fountain,  lazily pouring water from jaugs and vases into the pool, looking away with resigned expressions that say, ‘Boys will be boys …’ Or perhaps, ‘Fucking men!’

When I arrive at the designated meeting steps, Leo is already there, as are Mike and Mo. Garth soon turns up on his bike, trailed by two others, also both called Mike; one from Abergervenny, the other from Leicester. Mike from Abergevenny (Welsh Mike) only began as a promoter that week. He is wearing a trucker cap from under which spring great blond curls. He has a battered cherub’s face, red and round and ruddy, as if he has spent his time not floating on clouds but tumbling down earthy banks and digging in fields.  With twinkling eyes he is habitually smiling and laughing but doesn’t say much. He looks about fourteen. Mike from Leicester (English Mike) has been in Berlin for almost two years which, to the community of lingering back-ex-packers that is building about me, is growing towards an age. It is almost unheard of and imbues English Mike with a mysterious quality. What exactly he has been dong no-one is quite sure. He has promoted for the Crawl over the last two years but only very sporadically. This is his first time back on the steps since May. When asked what else he does he mutters something about cleaning out a Currywurst truck. He is wearing a fluffy hoody under an anorak, but on his feet, in spite of the bitter wind he sports sandals. Garth gives him some discount cards and flyers and points him in the direction of a hostel, and off he walks, mumbling to himself. 

I am to shadow Irish Mike that night, to watch how the promoting works. On the bus up to Ebenswalder Straße he tells me of his work as a promoter that summer, paying a rent of around 270€ a month. This is impressive considering that a promoter is only paid 4€ for every person he brings along to the tour. They work from roughly 7pm to 9pm, not including the trip over to the first bar. So if you bring in 15 people, which was common in the summer, Mike tells me, you are making almost 30€ an hour. I quiz him on how he got his flat, what kind of contract he is on and whether he has a social security number. With little interest and a little irritation, he gives out name of websites I should check out, tripwires I should be wary of and – after some coercion - his own mobile number.

I scribble these down, while he says to me, lazily rubbing off the date-stamp on an S-bahn ticket, ‘But really man, all this stuff – flats, jobs, security numbers - comes together through talking to people, and making friends, not through sending out emails and fannying about on the web.’

Heading into the hostel Mike essentially repeats what Ela said to me the night before.  ‘There is no one way to do this job. Everyone has their own technique, you know. Some go straight in for the kill, others are more relaxed about it. I try and be relaxed. Just grab a beer and get chatting. Go out for a smoke and ask for a light. Sometimes I bring in ten or so people and they have no idea that I’m actually working on the crawl.’

I ask Mike if he had been at the hostel I had stayed in the week before.

‘Yeah, I’m there quite a bit,’ he says, and I recall him sitting with us out on the balcony one evening with Bob and Bobby and Jim, telling us story about his neighbour from home being and MI6 operative. ‘Of course, sometimes I go there when I’m not working.’

In the hostel we manage to pick up four guys from Ukraine. They are friendly, and as we travel back to Friedrichshain they tell me that the people in Kiev are very nice. ‘They will invite you into their houses and you can sit down and eat with them. As long as you are not black.’

In the first bar these boys leave us as we sit with Welsh Mike and Mo. Mo is in good spirits and is Garth’s favourite that night for bringing in fifteen from a hostel in Charlottenberg. He says that one of them is a guy from Canada who runs a start-up based in Budapest that is branching out in Berlin. ‘He has jobs going here. I’m going to meet up with him tomorrow.’ He says to me, ‘If you want I can try and get you an interview.’

Irish Mike talks about his girlfriend who he actually met on the Pub Crawl. She is from the Ukraine and sends him constant texts about dreams she’s had of him kissing her sisters. He tells us these texts only serve to inspire dreams of exactly this nature in his sleep. Mo tells me that he also met his girlfriend on the Crawl. She is from Slovakia and doesn’t appear to be as much trouble as Irish Mike’s who repeatedly cuts into the conversation reading out more messages from her. Mo has no texts to read out and soon leaves us and spends the next half an hour in the corner of the bar chatting to Chuck from Canada about the interview the next day.

At the second bar, the sterile sushi joint, I obediently order my ‘Adios Mother Fucker’ and approach Garth. I try to strike up conversation but I don’t think he is really listening and when Irish Mike walks past, he grabs him by the shoulder and says, ‘Jesus mate – have you seen the little white panties those girls from Melbourne have on!’ I later find myself sitting with these four girls from Melbourne and see that Garth’s chances of getting closer to those little white panties are slim.

‘In Prague, we paid $14 for the Pub Crawl,’ they tell me and the rest of the table. ‘There were fifty of us on it, the first bar was a free bar for an hour, and we ended up in the biggest club in the whole of Central Europe … this sucks man. And in Barcelona …’ they continue to offer us reviews on the pub crawls in most of the biggest cities in Europe. They have been travelling for four months and are connoisseurs. Wondering if they had come across my Mexican friend from Liverpool, I nod along and furiously sip my cocktail.

The four girls leave after this bar just as Garth bounds out of a backroom of the bar with a bottle of vodka in his hand. ‘Who wants shots!’ And everyone leaps up and surrounds him flinging heads back and pushing out tongues for him to pour into their wide open mouths.

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2013

[1] Simon Cole, Berlin Blog at
[2] Simon Cole, Berlin Blog at

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