Struggling with the old door of an English bookshop I heard someone cry from within - ‘Push it!’ It gave way and I clambered up a couple of steps. It was a small room walled with books. There were two people in deep armchairs in the corner and a woman behind a desk. She had shaggy hair and greedy eyes and was wallowing in piles of books and ashtrays. Smiling, I directed my spiel at her. ‘Hallo. Ich heise Bertie. Ich suche Arbeit. Ich habe meine Liebenslauf, wenn es gibt Arbeit hier …?’ The woman looked at me in horror and I felt the gaze of the two shadows behind me. The woman asked tentatively in a low and hoarse, croaking voice if I spoke English. I heard that she was English herself, guilty relief swallowing the recognition that my German provokes repulsion in nationals and foreigners alike.
The woman told me that there were no jobs there as the place is run by herself alone. I thanked her anyway and awkwardly fingering my liebenslauf looked about the bookshop. It was a great warren of shelves supporting lame ladders with tottering piles of stained and curling books at their feet falling upon crates of empty beer bottles and cushions. Scraps of paper were stuck up on clipboards in verse and adverts for creative writing courses and open-mike nights. The shop extended back into another room beyond, and beyond that I spy the top of a winding staircase leading down somewhere.
One of the dark figures opposite the desk asked me in a thin American drawl what I am doing in Berlin. What are my plans? I say that there isn’t much of a plan but that I hope to find a job so I can stay here longer and learn German and spend time in the city. ‘But I don’t speak any German at all yet, which is causing difficulties …’
He is bespectacled in a zipped up woollen sweater, his skinny thighs cradling a great book with bound pages. He told me that he speaks no German either but had been offered a job that week teaching English at one of the Volkshules that are dotted throughout the city. I told him I have no teaching qualifications. He admitted this may be a problem. ‘The man I spoke to regarded this as particularly important. But perhaps, perhaps others …’ and he raised his eyebrows up towards his bald crown. He considered me in silence for a few moments and then slowly spread his long fingers down into his pocket and drew out a pen and scrawled down an address for me. I received it with gratitude. The woman behind the desk then said that I should get rid of the CVs as networking is everything in Berlin. ‘Go to the Toytown events,’ she tells me. (I used to frequent this site when in London, and scrolled down through the imploring inquires and contemptuous responses: ‘You think you might need a Security Card? Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty important. This isn’t fucking Ethiopa.’) I nod and thank her for the suggestion.
‘We actually have our own event here each Friday. There is food and plenty of people come along. Different types, interested in funny things and books and meeting other people. You could come if you like.’ I am interested in all these things I tell her, and say that I will return on Friday. Leaving the shop I am greatly heartened and think that no matter what other dead-ends I stumbled up against that day at least one little door knocked upon has swung open. Who know what will become of entering in! I indifferently throw away a few more CVs into nondescript German cafes and walk back to the hostel, buying a thickly packed ‘Brötchen’ and bottle dusty bottle of Sternburg Export, all of which I consumed on the street outside my hostel.
That evening was to be my last at the hostel. My German friend was off to Prague, and as we had wandered through Mitte drinking expensive beer for the start of Berlin Art Week, she had offered for me to stay in her room with her Italian flatmate, Mario, while she was away. This was a great relief. Even the relaxed, hippie hostel, soup and smiling worn faces, wasn’t enough to endear me to more time in noisy dorms, living from a locker packed with my laptops, bananas and vocab cards.
That afternoon, I resumed my usual space at the little round table by the window and continued sending off emails enquiring after flats. Happy Henry had convinced me that I should get myself a flat as quickly as possible, without which I would be unable to find work. I had gone to Berlin with the philosophy that everything would follow from employment. Henry said that everything followed from a flat.
‘But you already have a job.’
‘I could try and get you an interview?’ he said brightly.
We sat together that evening, both sending off emails for flat-shares. The students were descending on Berlin for the start of the new semester, and were joining everyone else in the frantic hunt for accommodation. The stakes were high, and these people with rooms to rent were receiving hundreds of applications a week. Serious Roger had told me that he had sent off two hundred in a week and only received three responses.
This is the generic email I came up with:
My name is Bertie. I am twenty two years old and come from London. I have seen your advert and was attracted by both the flat and the people in it!
A little about me:
I graduated in English Literature from the University of Liverpool this year, and have moved to Berlin to improve my German (only basic, as yet, I am afraid) and experience the challenges and excitement of living in a foreign city. I enjoy travelling and was keen to learn another language. (I have been learning French for a year, and very keen to improve that as well!)
I am currently working as a promoter in the city, and in my spare time I practise my German and write creative pieces and articles, attempting to build up a reputation as a freelance writer, in time. I volunteer at the English Theatre Berlin and hope, in time, to find employment in the media or the arts.
I adore seeing live music, coffee and newspapers on Sunday mornings, wine and cheese in the evening and exploring new bars in the city!
I would love to be considered to join you in your flat.
Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.
I sent off thirty that evening and to my surprise received a response within the hour. Henry was astonished at my success. He had received nothing. But my criteria was a lot looser than his. I was applying to every place that was under 300€ a month, and were open to people who only spoke English. This first response was from a girl living out in somewhere called Marzahn. Henry and I consulted my U-bahn map. It looked very far away. Henry shook his head.
‘But this is outside the Ring,’ Henry said. It was outside the ring. Quite far outside the ring in fact, heading towards then end of the S7 line, almost into zone C – the hinterland of Berlin, where active life, or at least popular life, appears to stop outside. Think Zone 6 in London.
The email read: hey, do you have time to come and visit the flat?
Yes! Of course, I replied, feigning, enthusiasm. When?
this week. anytime after 9. This seemed very late to me, and Henry shook his head again.
The next morning I rose early from the hostel to pack and head over to my friends. Thankfully the breath-screamer who snored like he was being strangled had left and it had been a pleasant last night. My luggage was already packed away; the banqueting hall was clean and empty. I saw the night watchmen outside on the terrace smoking a cigarette. He brewed me some coffee as I prepared my breakfast, and then I left.
My friend’s flat was in Neukölln, and was where I had stayed on my first two trips to Berlin, that summer just passed and the one before. Her flat is beautiful, old fashioned wooden staircases and big heavy doors and arches and a balcony. I walked through these streets with the smell of cities in the morning, a little pollution and coffee and the sound of road sweepers, crisp through the city smoke. My heart cheered and I had hope once more that I could make it in Berlin.
I stalled at the house however. My German friend had given me her set of free keys, colour coded and co-ordinating instructions as to how to open the door: which key went in which lock and which way to turn it (with logic or against logic) and how many times, and all this dependent or whether her flatmate – Mario from Rome – was in and had locked the door or not. Mario, she had informed me, worked in a call centre on Friday and Sunday evenings, and therefore would have recently returned home after I arrived.
Inevitably I floundered at the door, turning the keys round and round in various holes – not all of which I was sure were keyholes - until I had no idea where I now stood in regard to the steps laid out in the instructions. The door juddered back and forth as I tried to extract the boney key and I heard a reproachful click and twist the other side of the door. It swung open to reveal Mario, blurry-eyed, but smiling faintly. He was a big man, with kind and wary brown eyes, and long arms that swung at his side. I shook his hand, and greeted him and thanked him for letting me stay in an unintentional stage whisper. He shook my hand and said, ‘Ja ja. Ich schlafe jeztz. Also, bis später.’
I dumped my stuff down in my friend’s room and fell onto the bed. Pure bliss: a room to my own. And for ten days! I decided to celebrate by brewing some coffee on the stove using one of Mario’s Italian coffee pots. The stove appeared to create no heat at all so I returned to the bed room to setup my laptop and attempt to connect to the internet. This proved difficult and I forgot about the coffee, rushing into the kitchen fifteen minutes later to find it spluttering black granules over the stove. I took it off, and prised the window open as far as it would go, about an inch, and flapped a tea towel desperately, dreading the smoke alarm would go off and wake Mario again.
Back in the bedroom with my bitter coffee, I saw that I had a second response to my apartment request. It was from a French teacher called Ollie, who requested that I confirm that I could meet him the next day in the lobby of the big bookshop Dussmans. The original advertisement had been written by someone called Peter, in six languages, including Czech. They had plenty of rules it seemed: smoking was prohibited, a steady income was required, there was to be no noise at night, and the applicants would have to be prepared to stay until at least February. I replied confirming that I would meet him the next day and closing my laptop left the flat for some more employment hunting.
I was to go to an Irish pub over in Charlottenburg. I got the train to Zoologischer Garten station where I tramped through the rain and the mud of building works and crossed at the makeshift traffic lights and over to an ugly shopping centre where the green neon letter saying ‘IRIS PU ’ and a great green clover. Down to the basement I followed the green signs and into this huge Irish Pub, decorated in Celtic lettering, wooden panelling and shamrocks. Big wooden bars, and stalls and more room with black iron gates leading to more and more rooms and stalls and bars. The pub was quiet. The man behind the bar was old and looked grumpy. I tried to gage whether he was German or Irish when a large waitress came up to me with a great curly afro and huge breasts. She smiled at me brightly as I spoke my German. She introduced herself as ‘Panama’ and told me that they needed new staff and said I should call Erik, any evening.
‘And keep calling,’ she said as I scribbled down the number. ‘We need staff. Even if he doesn’t think so.’
I was back on the Pub Crawl that evening. Finishing a cigarette as I reached the hostel I chatted to a couple of Latvian students in berlin on a trip. I told them what I was doing and they looked scornfully at each other. ‘Why don’t you get a degree?’ they said, turning to me, frowning.
‘I have one.’ And their brows stayed puckered. They weren’t going to come on the Pub Crawl.
Upstairs, the hostel bar it was empty save for four guys who spoke what seemed to be a harsh sounding Italian. They were from Naples, and spoke almost no English, apart from one called Antonio, who looked like an Italian Justin Bieber. He smiled and asked questions while the others looked suspicious and grunted as he translated. Even Antonio didn’t quite understand what I was saying and soon got bored of me trying to explain. They said they would come, perhaps just to get rid of me.
‘Nine fifteen. Nine fifteen here,’ I kept repeating.
Two pretty girls were now sitting at a small table next to the bar. They didn’t look 18 but Garth had told me that the Pub Crawl had a fairly casual approach to underage punters. They were sipping creamy cocktails which they offered for me to taste, and turned out to be social workers from Basil, actually in their mid-twenties. They were keen to join the pub crawl and buying my own creamy cocktail in celebration we slurped together.
My run of luck was to continue with the appearance of Chan from China, and two French students from Strasbourg, who appeared to me like siblings though didn’t look at all alike. It turned out that Chan was also studding in Strasbourg. All three were quickly convinced to join the crawl, and I sat back contentedly listening to them jabber away in French. A pizza arrived for Chan at 9 which worried me slightly as the Italians were expecting to leave at 9.15. Chan may have noticed my concerned expression because he quickly said that he ate very fast. Better yet, he insisted that we all take a slice. The girls from Basil had joined us and soon we were all munching on Chan’s pizza.
At 9.20 the Italians turned up, eagerly eyeing the girls from Basil, and we set off. On the way to Alexanderplatz station I rang Garth’s No. 2 who was running the Crawl that night; the beautiful Hans who looked like he had just walked out of the woods of Twilight. In the station we ran onto the waiting U7 train. ‘Don’t we need a ticket?’ one of the breathless Swiss asked me as we waited for the doors to close. I had a month pass and so hadn’t even considered this. The doors would close any second and it was already 9.30. ‘It’ll be fine I’m sure.’ They all looked at me dubiously. ‘I promise, it’ll be fine.’ As the doors closed I envisioned having to dish out 40€ for each of them if someone asked to see our tickets.
We got to Frankfurter Tor without a problem, and a smiling Hans greeted us, wrapped up and hooded, his blond locks falling over one side of his pale face. This was the most perfect part of the job: arriving at this bar with a bubbling group trailing behind you like disorderly ducklings. Garth or Hans would now take over, my only job being to hand out wristbands.
‘Hi guys. How are y’all doing? I’m sure Bertie has already gone through the details with you but …’ It was soon apparent that there was problem. As Hans spoke, the Neapolitans were whispering to each other, looking at me questioning and frowning into the near-empty bar. ‘I’m sure Bertie has told you all this already …’ Hans said again.
Antonio turned to me and said that they had expected more dancing and more people. ‘There is not dancing here!’ and the others repeated the words they understood, staring with angry eyes. Hans came up to us and asked if there was a problem. They didn’t seem to trust Hans at all however and ignored him
completely. I tried to explain to them that there would be more dancing and more people, later, in the other bars. Hans was looking at me accusingly. Scared of being duped Antonio’s English appeared to have left him, and Hans’ attempts at Italian didn’t help. Eventually they paid up. They wandered into the bar and me and Hans followed.
I felt obliged to join them on the pub crawl now, for at least the first stop. On the way to the second bar I noticed a squat, unshaven pimply man with long gorilla arms joining our group, and I assumed it was someone Welsh Dave had picked up. I found out in the next bar that this was actually the boss, and the amidst sickly shisha smoke he bored me for the next forty minutes about his plans to ship students over from the UK for the Crawl.
The Italians had found two blonde tall girls in this bar and were whooping and singing and laughing in the corner. For some reason they had christened me ‘Johnny’ and kept crying out to me to come and join them. When they went out for a spliff, I disentangled myself from the Boss, wished Hans a good night and left the bar. I said goodbye to the Italians in the street. They fell silent and looked at me again with uneasy eyes. I waved merrily, and went.
Bertie Digby Alexander