I ordered a gross fass Bier that I couldn’t afford and tried to read about Merkel’s electoral triumph in Ex-Berliner. There was no mention of the Nazis of Marzahn.
It was a small little bar with French music. The drinks were cheaper than at the hostel, but not by much. The atmosphere was superb however and I begun to feel cheered as I sipped on my second beer. The bartenders were polite and unobtrusive. There were quiet couples on most tables and I felt undisturbed, unacknowledged and at peace. The toilet for Herren was up some stairs. There were two urinals, a mirror and a sink that is out of order. This means that when I returned to the bar the tenders must have knowned that there was no way that I could have washed my hands. I wondered if this bothered them.
The bartenders there speak French to each other. I tried to catch what they are saying but only understood the odd word and phrase. Putting Merkel aside, I opened my book ‘city-lit Berlin’ and contently started to read. The Kneipe was almost empty save for me and another punter a little down along the bar. I carried on reading perfect gems of literature from and about Berlin. I made notes in the margin. Without looking up I noticed a man sit next to me. He spoke French to the bartenders. It was the most French I have heard in Berlin yet and he said as much to me in German.
‘Besser als English,’ I reply.
‘Woher kommen Sie?’ he asks.
‘London,’ I say in a low drawl that I have subconsciously perfected.
We get talking and he asks me what I do. I tell him what I do, and that I like to write.
’Write! You must write and keep writing. We have few gifts, only one usually. So we must use what we have. I cannot write. I can speak seven languages – none from school, only from listening – but I could never write. To me it is like a storm. Too many words I do not know what to do with them and cannot make sense of it. But you, if you can write – and I take it that you can – then you must write. You must tell stories. There are so many stories to be told and so few that are – because people can’t write or because people can’t be bothered. My talent is in painting and sculpturing ….’
‘And you tell stories with that?’
‘Let’s not talk about that,’ he says. ‘But if you can write you must write! Write, and keep writing! And you must dare! You must dare, and meet people and ask questions and get drunk and then you write about it all! You must dare and write! They are the two important things. Forget everything else. And if only two people in the whole world understand what you are saying. Then there is still success. Fuck the rest! If you are on a desert island with one other person and you tell him a story and he believes in it and thinks about it, then voila! You have changed his life. You have changed his world.
‘We only have a few talents. Most of us only one! Some of us none. We must concentrate and focus on only that talent.’ He makes a ring with his thumb and forefinger and grabs my hand so I do the same. ‘Look through that and focus on only that.
‘You are young but I am old. I am fifty in February. But you are young. You have something to say. The Berlin that lies around you now is your Berlin. You can own this city. You can own this city! You can tell this city because you are here now and you are seeing it and you are surrounded by it. You can write about this barman and this bargirl.
‘You are young now but one day you will be my age. So often we are embarrassed. And why? Embarrassment freezes us and chains us to convention. We have to dare!’ He roars into my face, and I, suddenly taken up by his faith, roar back in his face. We bellow together into each other faces. I don't feel embarrassed. I fear this is only because of the beers I have drunk, and that I would not be able to do this without them, failing in his believing eyes.
‘To dare, and to think, and then to write. You write and you get published, and most people won’t understand your story but you keep writing. I can’t write but I wish I could. I dare and I think but I cannot write and tell my story. I am forty-nine, in February I will be fifty.
‘I look at pictures of myself when I am fifty and I think, that is me? But it is me, and it is me when I look at a picture of myself when I was five. When I liked a girl in the playground. It is still me. I have learnt stuff but it is still me. I haven’t changed. And nor will you.
‘You come from a good family? You have that. You have that and your friends at home. You have that there safe and you have knowledge from that but you are here now. You are here in Berlin but it could be anywhere. It is city XYZ. It is a foreign city and you have left your family and friends and now here you are immersed in it.’
All this time I have nothing to say. All that he says is resounding inside me and telling me to not give a fuck about having brought no-one to the Pub Crawl three nights in a row. Or to worry about the Irish Pub or where I will live. I am in Berlin. I am in Berlin! I am lucky.
‘I fear I do not dare enough,’ I say.
‘Don’t think about it, just dare!’ And he says I think of just catching a U-bahn to Bergheim.
‘There is nothing that we could do today that the world hasn’t already seen. That God hasn’t already seen! There are naked men … and there are naked women … There is nothing we can’t do. We have to enter the world and meet people and ask questions and let the rest take over and allow ourselves to be pulled and to drift and be dragged and blow in the elements of the world and then return to write about it. I can’t write about it but you can. But you must!’ And he makes the circle with his forefinger and thumb again and I do too and he looks through his at me and I look through mine, through my beer fogged eyes. ‘You can write so you must write! That is all you should do, because that is all that matters. All we have is our brains. Dare Think Write.
We clink our drinks together.
Once when I was in Antigua, Guatemala for a few days, I ventured into the park and was accosted by a boy. He was, like most of them there, a shoeshine boy. But he also sold drugs: weed and coke mainly. He would offer it to me each day and each day I would decline. He would then linger about me and we might talk a little about the other people in the park and other things, though I can’t remember what. Or we would sit and he would stand in indifferent silence. One of the days when he again offered me drugs I asked him, ‘How old are you?’ He looked at me with a withering scorn and said, ‘Fuck off’ and left.
And damn right. My question had been only formed only in curiosity. I wasn’t going to be particularly shocked if he was younger than I thought and still dealing drugs. In Guatemala it wasn’t to surprise me. I just wasn’t sure how old he was, and was curious. He had a high voice and puppy-fat cheeks. But I felt the child after I had asked that question. I didn’t know where he came from, or what his family or home was like, but imagined he had grown up tougher and more resilient and in many ways more worldly than I had grown up in Bath, Great Britain. That ‘fuck off’ I deserved and I felt small and infantile and utterly embarrassed. In one way, because in a pathetic moment, I thought we could have been friends. For three days.
My conversation with this man reminded me of that, in the sense that at times of pause in our conversation, social etiquette – or perhaps merely convention – pushed me to want to say ‘Sorry, I’m Bertie by the way …’ or ‘Woher kommen Sie?’ I don’t know how he would have reacted. But I think that it could have been similar to the boy. Apart from asking where I came from and what my family was like, he hadn’t really asked me any questions at all. And for my part, it didn’t really matter what his name was or where he came from. Like it didn’t matter what he name of that bar is, or why everyone there speaks French. I still don’t know these things. Yet I have been there many times since.
This man’s age mattered, but I never would have asked that anyway. But his name didn’t. And so I resisted asking anything else. We were talking about me, after all. What would it matter if he was Thomas or Matthias from Vienna or Montpeilier? Asking for such detail would have been an attempt to put a tag on this, to block and mark it. ‘Ah yes, remember Nicholas from Budapest I met that third week in Berlin …’ A tidy name and province to log away like Jann from South Africa and Roger from Hampshire. He story didn’t matter either, as our subject was me.
So I resisted asking these question that an excessive sense of politeness drew me towards. He didn’t need that. And I certainly didn’t need that. He simply spoke honestly, and truly, and gave me hope and inspiration in a foreign city after a dry shift. And then he left, and I wasn’t to forget what he said, even if I can’t now recall his face.
Bertie Digby Alexander