Saturday 25 January 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #11

I arrived at the Irish Pub as Panama was leaving. She wished me good luck as she emerged from behind the bar. After her great form appeared Erik, looking particularly serious. He regarded me quizzically when I introduced myself, and then brightened fractionally and said in a clipped, perfectly-American accent, ‘Oh yeah. Right, hi. C’mon this way.’ He showed me his office, the store room, the walk-in fridges, beer-cellar and changing rooms. He took my bag from me and gave me a Guinness t-shirt with the writing, ‘Paint the town black …’

‘You will be working in Sonic tonight, with Johnny. I know it’s your first day, and so you are going to make mistakes, I’m just looking for you to be a barman. Just be a barman. Got it?’

I had been calling Erik for the last few evenings in spare moments while promoting for the Pub Crawl. Each time he had asked me to call him back the next day. And then that day, as I had been handing around CVs in Friedrichshain, he had rung me back. 

            ‘Hello Bertie? It’s Eric.’

            ‘Hi Eric! How are you?’

            ‘Good. Bertie one of my girls can’t work tonight. This would be a good opportunity for your trial shift. Are you in Berlin?’

            ‘Yes, I am in Berlin. I arrived a few weeks ago.’

            ‘Good. Can you work? 7 o’clock start. Bring comfortable shoes. And black trousers. I’ll have a shirt for you.’

            Johnny, who I was to work with that night, was lanky and long-haired and turned out to be one of the barmen I had handed my CV to in another Irish pub the week before. He greeted me cheerily. ‘You smoke? Come with me?’ And he led me through iron gates to a gothic, dusty dark section of the pub. There were no lights on and all the chairs and stalls were stacked up on the tables, save for one where there was a dirty ashtray and various smoking accoutrements scattered about it.

            As we smoked he reeled of the names of the five bars in the pub.

            ‘We have Central, Sonic, House, Ship and Swamp. Central is that big one in the middle. It’s the busiest one, the only one open in the day and the last one to close. If you’re working Central then be prepared for a long one. Sonic – that’s where we are tonight - is where we do cocktails. Can you make cocktails? I will do the cocktails. House is just here, and that’s Ship. You see the sail? We do cocktails there too. This is where the band play. But not tonight, only on the weekend. And then Swamp. No-one likes Swamp. That’s usually manned by one person. Remember that it is table-service only there. Make sure you don’t take orders from the bar otherwise the waitresses won’t give you their tips. Ready?’ 

It had been years since I had last poured a pint and it soon became clear that despite his earlier warmth Johnny had not patience for mistakes. And I made plenty. I tried to stay calm and keep them to a minimum. Erik was strutting about the place looking over at us in Sonic. The waitresses were unsympathetic, and the customers spoke a lot less English than I had been lead to believe. After yet another overflowing pint of Kilkenny Johnny said to me, ‘I’m not trying to contradict you Bertie, but you have actually worked in a bar before?’

He would jump in between me and customers when there was moment hesitation on my part, rushing past with two perfectly pored pints hanging from his fingers, typing the order in to the till and dropping the change into the customers hand. At one point when he was occupied with cocktails I spent a good five minutes unable to understand a German shouting his order at me. I had no idea what he wanted, and could only apologize vociferously and wait for Johnny to come over.  

‘It’s Irish Pub, Not Irish Bar,’ he viciously reprimanded me when I named the pub incorrectly to one curious punter. ‘You know this isn’t even busy Bertie …’

Our waitress was Jordan from New York, dark haired and Netflix-beautiful with thick rimmed glasses, curling her lip at the drinks I delivered on to her train. The only comfort I received was from two drunk Germans from the North at the end of the bar who told me I was doing a great job and would make a great barman. ‘Look! You already are one!’ I wasn’t so sure but by 3am didn’t care, and took my staff drink to the table where I had sat before the shift. Johnny came up from behind me and slamming me on the back with his hand he sat down grinning and said, ‘So! How was that?’

He was much nicer off now the shift has ended and appeared to hold no grudge for my poor performance. He laughed at my bashful self-deprecations, and told me, ‘We all make mistakes when we are learning! I’m not the one you want to watch out for.’ Jordan was much nicer too. She came and sat down with us and they invited me to join them at a twenty four hour café they knew around the corner called Schwarzes Cafe. A handsome Indian barman called Vernon was to come with us, as well as a girl from Yorkshire and two others from Hungary. Though I was no longer being reprimanded, I didn’t really feel comfortable in their presence. Vernon was particularly unpleasant, saying my name in a mocking camp drawl and looking at me like I was an amusing but pitiful child. At about half four I left them at the café.

For some reason Mario was still awake when I returned. As I crashed once more through the door he emerged from his room, and smiling brightly ushered me into to see a new wardrobe and a new desk he had bought.

‘You see? You see? All new. Brought to day!’ I smiled encouragingly. He stood in front of his new purchases and grinned at me, hands on his hips as if posing for a BHS ad. I wasn’t sure what more I could say at this point. I walked up to the cupboard and stroked it a few time mumbling, ‘umm yes, very nice, schön, sehr sehr schön… ‘

He was already awake when I entered the kitchen the next day at around 12. He had cooked another fantastic pasta dish for himself with eggs, bacon, tomatoes and cheese. The kitchen was full of the smell and he sat now at the kitchen table eating it. He greeted me with a jovially with a full mouthful when I entered and then returned to the Italian television show he was watching on his laptop; laughing with his whole, vainly attempting to keep control himself while shovelling more immense forkfuls of food into his mouth.

It was a beautiful morning and I was in good spirits as I left the flat to meet my friend’s sister for coffee. She had text me the day before insisting I come over and offering sympathies that has been left all alone with Mario. She said that her sister would find it hilarious that there was a chance that I would move to Marzahn. I like my friend’s sister, and she had the same effect upon me that my friend had: that smile and unfolding belief that not only could I make it in Berlin but that I would, and soon we would be drinking cocktails together, and I would be speaking German to them about my new job and inviting them over for supper at my new flat.

After coffee I left her flat to check out the Volkschule the American in Another Country had mentioned. Reaching Pankow I eventually found the school down an old mud track and lined with crumbling houses. It was a great black building which looked like a church under construction, but inside like a dowdy high school. I saw no one but an old crippled man in a small study at the corner. There were no signs but lots of flyers and posters on a little desk next to me in German. I asked the man, ‘Spechen Sie Englisch?’he shook his head, and I so I said, ‘Ich suche Arbeit. Konnen Sie mir helfen?’ He nodded his head and began rustling through a great brochure on the desk. He did this for about ten minutes, constantly apologising, and then proudly pointed to a double page spread on Deutsch lessons, smiled, and retreated back to his office. I took the broacher anyway, and returned to the U-bahn station. Who knows, maybe one day I could teach there?

            Erik had said he would get back to my regarding a possible second trial shift. I wasn’t overoptimistic. For the time being most of my chips rested with Garth and the Pub Crawl. It wasn’t going so well: the Bulgarian had got us banned from another hostel, both Welsh and English Dave there was no sign of, and Mo had his smart job in Alexanerplatz with Chuck the rich Canadian. Walking over to Frankfurter Tor that evening I had received a message from the bespectacled student from Bayern saying that I hadn’t been quite the right fit for the flat. I wondered if Mo’s offer for me to sleep on his bedroom floor was still open.

That evening Garth had managed to pull in some new promoters and I was tasked with showing an Israeli girl the ropes. We went to a hostel near Senefeldeplatz, drank some expensive beer and had no luck.  We headed to a second hostel named after a prison, which was always dead.  When we arrived there seemed to be only staff. They were out drinking and told us they didn’t know where their guests were. The Israeli girl asked if they have any jobs going.

‘Do you speak German?’  

‘Ein bischen.’

‘Forget it. Unless you want to clean toilets. And the pay is terrible.’ And they all laughed.

The next night I was coupled with a guy called Karl from Melbourne. He had arrived in Berlin at the beginning of the Summer and spent the season busking at Warschauer Strase and Mauer Park wearing nothing but white briefs and a huge horse mask. He had actually made a hell of reputation out of it and was surprised I hadn’t heard of him. ‘Karl the Neigh-kid Horse’ he called himself.

‘Sometime I really spaz out and fall on the ground as if I’ve just had a fit. And just lie there for a few minutes. Lots of hot girls come and seek me out. But it sucks cos they never want me to take the mask off.’

We were to promote at the hostel I had left the week before. On the train he told me his plans to set up a real party hostel here in Berlin. ‘It would only be the third real party hostel in the world. It’s amazing there that there isn’t already one here. This is one of the last cities in Europe left where freedom has been sacrificed for security.’ We talked about tubing in Vang Vieng and he told me about how often he was beaten up in Australia for being skinny, or having long hair, or piercings ‘Hey you fucking faggot! People would shout. Living here is freedom to me.’

The two of us were to work that evening at the second hostel I had left the week before. The hotel was as lethargic and peaceful as always. Karl and I sat outside on the terrace with some other Australians and let the time tick away. I eventually called Garth. He sounded depressed on the phone and told me that we would speak tomorrow. I remember Ela words, two weeks before on that terrace.  ‘They told me they were going to fire me after my first week. But then I got lucky and brought in twenty Scottish soldiers.’

The next day a pale and pretty mournful looking girl walked up to us next to a beaming Garth. She was called Lucia, and for the third day in a row I was given a partner for the evening. Lucia looked at us all and Garth as he went through the hostels we were to go to, the games and drinks they were to be playing that night, and the deals that would be on offer at Fritz club. It soon became clear to everyone except Garth that Lucia had no idea what she had signed up for.  As we travelled to the hostel together she told me that she had been expecting to ride on her bicycle handing out flyers to hostels. But she was unable to return home to Prague and desperate as her singing career wasn’t taken off.

She found the whole concept of a Pub Crawl and our role in it unfathomable, and laughed a high and mirthless giggle at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. She stopped doing even this when we reached the hostel. She was miserable all night and so I blamed her for my third consecutive night of no success. At 10 she left and I decided to make a last pitch at the prison hostel. As I approached the hostel I realise that I have lost my card saying that I am a valid Pub Crawl promoter. It began to rain as I searched the streets for the slip of plastic. That would be 10€ I would have to pay Garth for a new one. With my current dry record, I expected the worst.

I couldn’t find the slip of plastic. Having nothing else to do, I return to the first hostel, cursing myself and the whole situation. Getting out at the U-bahn station it was horribly cold. The wind splattered the rain in my face and I felt my socks soaking up the muddy water I splashed through. Nothing had changed at the hostel. Both staff and guests looked at me with weary irritation, waiting to see if I would make another desperate pitch.  When I leave it is raining harder. Seeing the lights of a bar on my way back to the station I change my direction and enter. Fuck the Pub Crawl. Fuck it all.  

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014


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