Sunday 29 June 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #13

I chose to move into the flat in Marzahn and was largely pleased about the way things had panned out. It wasn’t the celebratory acquisition of an address that I had imagined. The phrase ‘I have a flat’, that I had thought would fall so euphoric when uttered truthfully from my lips the first time, felt a little muted and plagued by limitations. Marzahn really was very far out. But, it meant no more hostels, and it was a significant foot forward in the right direction. I came to find in Berlin that the progression towards dreams comes in such small steps that often you barely notice yourself nearing them. But you are nearing them nonetheless and power comes in recognising your progress, and in loving it, and giving it the appreciation it deserves. We owe that to our past selves and our past dreams, if nothing else.

I took half of my small collection of possessions over to Marzahn a few days before I was to move in properly. Having dumped them in my room, I chatted a little to my German flatmate with the Boudicea-red hair. She was hovering up rabbit droppings in the sitting room, some of which were as freshly laid as it was possible to be, the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner sweeping dangerously close to the little Milla who, being deaf, was utterly unaware of its nearing approach. The buzzer for the main door downstairs sounded and a few minutes later emerged a French girl, sweating and grinning and wearing a hiking backpack. This girl was to be my other flatmate. She was moving in that day and had only arrived in Berlin that week. In her desperation to find a place to live she hadn’t even visited the flat or yet met the fiery haired Hauptmieter (main tenant). She was student and spoke better German than English, though her English was better than both my German or French. Je suis Bertie, I said proudly and shook her hand at the door. How wonderful this was to be! I thought, being able to practise both languages in this flat! I descended the stairs with her as she went to pick up her second suitcase and left her at the bottom to rush over to Charlottenburg without offering to help her take her load up the five flights of stairs, which I later felt bad about.

A few days later I had said my goodbyes to Mario and was back in Marzahn with the remainder of my kit. When I arrived the flat was even messier than it had been before. In the sitting room Red with the fiery hair sat alongside the French girl and a tall German boy. They were sitting about the low coffee table laden with a breakfast of rolls, cold meats, cheese, Nuttella and three steaming mugs of coffee. They invited me to join them. I told them I would soon speak only German but couldn’t possibly do it right this moment, tired and excited as I was. I squeezed my few paltry groceries into the fridge overladen with moulding food and sat down with them. Red only ate half a roll with some jam spread over it and then sat back on the sofa and commenced rolling a joint. The German boy put down his salami and cheese muttering some words to her and took over the rolling. The French girl rolled herself a cigarette to and soon I was in a cloud of smoke enjoying the breakfast alone. I became entranced watching Smokie the Frenchie who would lazily drag her cigarette, the trail of smoke slipping out of her mouth and rising up to and curling around her tangled brown hair. She had big brown eyes and full lips, and smiled at us all placidly when she wasn’t laughing hoarsely or speaking German in her thick French drawl.

After the breakfast I walked over to the little shopping centre towards Mehrower Allee S-Bahn station. It wasn’t really a mall but a large building with a collection of shops which had a wide thoroughfare cutting through it which was kept open all hours. Apart from the regular banks, supermarkets and pharmacy there was also a plastic looking Italian restaurant at the far end and on the side nearest my flat there was an Asian takeaway and kebab shop, and occasionally a van parked up selling hot sugary treats.

I bought some bread, cheese, salad and yoghurt from the supermarket Rewe and noticing the grocers opposite was overcome with a strong desire to eat fruit. I bought a box of raspberries and a box of blueberries and a large apple. It was a warm day and so I sat out on a bench on the side of the walkway that stretched from the tram stop just outside my house, through the shopping centre and on to Mehrower Allee S-Bahn station. The yoghurt actually turned out to be some kind of creamy vanilla syrup, which I cracked open nonetheless and dipped the berries into. Halfway through the berries I attacked the apple. I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed an apple so much. In fact I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed an apple at all. I had always felt it to be the most boring of fruit. This one was the size of a softball and as shinny as the fake ones found in bowls at Christmas. With relish I crunched great white mouthfuls out of it. There was an old man sitting on the bench next to me looking vapidly out at the people passing by. I thought it wouldn’t be long before I was back sitting on a bench much like this one with my old companions of cheap beer, cigarettes and a falafel kebab. At that point though there was nothing I would have swapped my apple for.

The joy bubbling away inside of me did not appear to be reflected out on the streets. It was a quietly depressing little scene, full of the ugly normalness of Philip Larkin. The normalness that makes a mockery of living. It was just people walking by, bits of families mainly, doing their shopping, making noise, going about their business, filling the hours. Still new, I was very aware of the Plattenbauten that rose about me, as in the preceding three weeks I had always felt the presence of the Fernsehturm over my shoulder even when it was out of sight. It didn’t feel repressive sitting there, surrounded by people and their houses, but it did feel packed. Later I was to find the peace in Marzahn and realise how quiet it is and how quickly one could locate a spot of solitude. But at that point, gorging on my fruit, I felt like I had been thrown in to a community, a mass of people, that weren’t my people, and it would only be a matter of time before they realised that I wasn’t supposed to be there at all.

They were ugly as well, I thought. Fat and decrepit, struggling in the simple human functions of walking and breathing. A lot of them seemed be losing their hair, what was left of which hung limply down their neck and over their ears. Apart from the children, who were as energetic as children anywhere, everyone appeared to be living under a shadow; every face looked tired and no one appeared particularly happy. They were all just going on. Everyone was smoking. The smell of stale, dried smoke would later become firmly associated in my mind with the people of Marzahn.

Anything can be forgotten and any worry or concern – legitimate or otherwise – can be easily squashed when there is the next mouthful, the next swig or the next drag to consider, and so I didn’t really think of them much, or how it would be to live with them, but just kept on eating my fruit.

Walking back to the flat I had to cross what I always described as a meadow. The path I walked along was lined by trees and on one side there were bushes before a line of shops – a bakery and odd little café and a funny  bar that looked like the lobby of a care home – and then beyond them, of course, were more tower blocks. To the other side of me stretched grass, a path winding through it leading to a giant bright green block looking like something out of The Tweenies. It was in fact a school and in later weeks I would see children each morning bundled up against the cold making their way towards it, dithering and stalling. Just off the path that went perpendicular to this one, that which I was now trundling along, stood a Vietnamese man who would be there most of the times that I was to pass over the next few months. He stood looking cold and bored and next to him, lined up like little toy soldiers, were a four or five packets of different brands of cigarettes. These so called Handelsplätzen, I was to later learn, were all that was left of the Marzahn Vietnamese mafia. In the 1990s there had a string of murders had plagued the district and the next door (and much grimmer and greyer) district of Hellersdorf (‘Light Village’). Somehow the war eventually came to a close. The demand for illegal cigarettes began to drop heavily and the vacuum left by the dissolution of the two gangs was filled by a multitude of much smaller ones. Today you are more likely to come across Vietnamese selling flowers or hairdressing services than cigarettes. Despite this, whispers of the Marzahn Vietnamese mafia are still rife within the Ring and towards the West. And even I would often wonder when I passed the little man along that path each day: What was actually going on? What had he seen? What had his parents seen? What am I not seeing?

Back at the flat I attempted to squeeze my small pile of groceries into the packed fridge shelf that had been designated by Red as mine. There was something dripping down to the shelf at the bottom of the fridge and when I closed the door a sour-cheese smell was wafted into my face. I then set about tidying up the flat but soon realised that this was to be a losing battle. It really was the filthiest place I had ever lived in. Red had lived there for almost four years so had collected piles of defunct and half broken objects that rose up in piles in the kitchen or spilled out of cupboards in the hallway. The multitude of flatmates that had come before Smokie and I had also contributed to the mass of stuff that the flat was filled with. One of the prior tenants, Red told us, had simply disappeared one morning, leaving the entirety of his possessions where they were. Red heard from the man’s aunt that he was still alive, but that was it. Running from debts and a baby, he never heard of him again. I was to later replenish my wardrobe from what remained of him in the flat.

As I tidied up, Smokie was in the sitting-room and perhaps felt a little guilty and so put out her cigarette and her sheets of German and came to help me. Mill was charging against the cage doors so we let her out but soon regretted it as she hopped around the room shitting everywhere, and leaving puddle of piss at Smokie’s feet. I wiped a few of the counters in the kitchen and started to wash up but no cold water came out of the tap and so the sink was full of water too hot to put your hands in. I could feel squashed rabbit droppings squishing under my feet and eventually gave up and fell onto the couch. Smokie was quick to follow my lead.

At this point I was working about three days a week at the Irish Pub and then twice a week I would join Garth on the steps opposite Frankfurter Tor for the Pub Crawl. He had a couple of newbie promoters that he had picked up somewhere but none of them stayed long. The dearth of backpackers keen for free shots and Beer-Pong in Friedrichshain meant that I was spending more than I was earning during these nights. I began taking literature along to read at the hostels so the evenings wouldn’t be wholly wasted. It was growing cold and despite the new schemes cooked up by the mysterious Irish manager and the newly designed flyer that Garth proudly showed me I had little hope that things would pick up.  

Regarding the Irish Pub, Erik had told me I needed to buy myself a pair of black trousers and some shoes for my second shift. Not knowing where would be best to find these I wandered over to Hackescher Markt in Mitte. I have been told that this place has lost much of the charm that it once had. What was once a treasure chest of little independent shops and homely little cafes is now dominated by global chains such as H&M and Zara. The independent shops other shops have been pushed down into side alley or out of the area completely, due to the low footfall meaning they were quickly unable to pay the skyrocketing rent. The area is equally as quiet now the big brands are there. This is no skin of their nose of course, and many believe that they only set up in the quiet Hackescher Martke to be able to say they were part of the Berlin scene. It all makes for a rather odd place. It is still beautiful in a polished touristy sense, but only comes alive on warm afternoons or evenings where battalions of waiters emerge from overpriced cafés and restaurants to lay out lines and lines of tables and chairs. The area doesn’t feel very Berlin to me at all and I think this is common to those who live and work and play principally in the triumvirate of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain.

In Charlotenberg, where the Irish Pub was, it felt similarly ‘un-Berlin.’ Whereas Hackesher Markt appears to be ashamed of the gaudy tourist restaurants and shops that now plague its streets and has the modesty to bow its head in shame at the globalisation that has consumed it, Charlottenburg sparkles and seems to revel in its distinctiveness from the rest of Berlin. Charlottenburg was the shining heart of the little island of capitalism that West Berlin once was in the sprawl of the Soviet Union.  KaDeWe, the Kaufhaus des Westens, is the biggest department store in Europe after Harrods and has lit up Kurfürstendamm (‘the Ku'damm’) since it first opened in 1907, standing as a spectacular beacon of consumerism throughout the Cold War.

There are icons of the bygone glory to be found in Charlottenburg. The cinema Zoo Palast is one of them, a similarly sparkling venue and has been restored to its former glory this year. It was built in 1950, constructed out of the ashes of a silent cinema which, like KaDeWe, was heavily bombed in during the Second World War. Shimmering through the 50s and 60s, it gradually fell out of fashion and into disrepair. Now, after €5.5 million spent has been towards its renovation, Zoo Palast is once more to offer Berliners what it calls, 'premium cinema'.

Café Kranzler is another architectural celebrity in the district, and like the other two, has also gone under extensive redevelopment. While KaDeWe appears today very much of the time, and Zoo Palast, a classy throwback, Café Kranzler is crass and tacky and sticks out on the Ku'damm with its red and white, stripped tombola hat. The original Café Kranzler was opened in 1834 on Unter Den Linden on the corner of Friedrichstraße. With a sun terraced, ice-cream parlour and smokers’ room it came to be seen as one of the finest and most fashionable spots in the city. A second branch was opened in 1932 where the current one can now be found. This was where the equally famous Café des Westens had once sat, running from 1898 to 1915. This café was known colloquially as Café Größenwahn, meaning ‘the delusions of grandeur café’ and became a meeting point for many of the greatest artists living in the city at the time.  Nothing is left of the original Café Kranzler, and where the current one today sits not a speck of the finery and jazz of its parent institutions can be found. Instead you have sour faced waitresses dressed up in the café’s red and white stripped colours, serving over priced coffee and damp, tasteless and greying food.

Just off the Ku’damm, only a five minute walk from Café Kranzler is Zoo Station and the Europa Centre where the Irish Pub was. Zoo Station (Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof), once the hot spot for prostitution, drugs, the black-market and the scene of many a thrilling Cold War spy novel, now resembles a sad drunk crouching in the corner of a shopping mall. Building work is going on there and hopefully they will bring the place up on its feet again. It smells of fast food, has too many cheap neon lights and tawdry statues. It is one of the worse places within the Ring in my opinion, and is perhaps a cautionary tale for living too hard and too fast. The only bit around Zoo Station I do like is when you leave the station from the back entrance along Jebensstraße where the Museum für Fotografie is. It is mostly stone here, and only calm, pastel colours. There is usually a down-and-out or two sitting in one of the inlets here. It is quiet, and feels very European, more like Italy or France than Germany, or Berlin, or certainly Zoo Station.
For my second shift at the Irish Pub I was working with Johnny again, which he seemed as disappointed about as I was.  I started the shift nervy and spent the ensuing six hours that way, the only moments of  relative calm found sucking on a cigarette in the a back room and looking ahead desperately to the Feierabend (end of shift) pint. The smirking Vernon was working as a waiter that evening. Smart, shining and confident he swooped between the crowds of punters, cooing his beautiful German and watching me flap about behind the bar preparing his drinks. I had found out that Johnny and Ellie, the girl from Yorkshire who had lived her way around Europe by working at Irish Pubs, had paid for my drinks when I had left Schwarzes Café early by mistake. I apologized and told them I would pay them back. ‘Ye, you cheeky bastard!’ Johnny had said grinning before the shift began. Ellie wrinkled her nose and told me it didn’t matter and that I could just buy her a drink next time they went out. Vernon however was not so easily placated. He stared at me, grinning as I spoke to the girl and would for the next couple of weeks call out things like, ‘Bought Ellie some drinks have you yet Bertie?’ or ‘Watch out for Bertie, he might not come back when he goes to the toilet!’
        That second shift went worse than the first, primarily because I no longer had the excuse that it was my first day or that I hadn’t pulled a pint in years. The Kilkenny would froth like the Cornish coast however gently I pulled the tap, or however much I fiddled with the pressure nozzle. I would pour the froth into spare glasses, waiting for it to settle so I could it use it later. I soon had a line of these pints full of head standing under the taps.

One of the things I was getting used to was the customers tipping as they paid. For example, if a drink was 4.70€ they would say ‘five’ indicating that the 30 cense was my tip. This was opposed to their being a tip jar on the bar, or them ‘buying me a drink.’ Often when paying they wouldn’t say anything at all, but when I returned their change they would shake their head and back away, seemingly offended that I would assume them stingy enough not to tip 30 cense. Despite the awkwardness of this, it felt very unnatural to me, to simply pocket their change without them having explicitly indicated that I should do so. I was extremely unlucky in that when I did for the first time do just that, assume the tip and casually drop the 30 cense change into our little jar, the indignant customer loudly demanded where his change was. Of course at this point Johnny was nearby and swooped in to get the man the right change. Both were scowling and when the man had turned away Johnny rounded on me saying,

‘I don’t want to break your balls Bertie, but you’re not gonna last long here if you keeping making mistakes like this!’
  Erik wasn’t managing that day but the second manager, an old German called Olaf. Olaf was much friendlier than Erik. He smiled for instance, and in general seemed to take a much more relaxed approach to managing a bar. He was wizened and bald and looked like a crookled warlock out of Game of Thrones.  Erik had told me that it was essentially down to Olaf whether I would stay working at the Pub or not. He didn’t seem to watch my work at all so I figured that unless Johnny spoke up I wouldn’t be going anywhere. Whether that was something to be pleased about I was yet unsure.  

At 2am I was pouring myself a pint of Guinness. I drank it in about five minutes while having a cigarette in the narrow corridors when the band stored their bags and cases and used as a thoroughfare to their van that waited for them in the underground car park just outside. It was hot there and overflowing ashtrays and a couple of pint glasses and mugs with solidified dregs. Camp Olaf was very relaxed and at the end of the shift when we were all closing down the bar with our Feierabend drink,  spinning about clutching a Desperado and saying in a high voice, ‘My gay beer! My gay beer!’

I was pretty unenthused by the work. Panama told me that she had only wanted to work at the Irish Pub for a month, and she had at that point been there for a year. There was little chance of that happening to me, I thought smugly as I wiped down the bar, then sobered hearing Johnny’s words again. What I was concerned about more than anything when working at the Irish Pub, was that it wasn’t really Berlin. I was thinking this in Marzahn really, and what it boiled down to that I wasn’t living in the Berlin I had heard about, in the Berlin that I had read about. In this Irish Pub, I could have been anywhere. That was what bothered me, and that was why I reeled when Ellie told me that she was making her way slowly around Europe by working in Irish pubs.

Schwarzes Café did seem like Berlin to me however so I was happy to return there when my second shift ended early. I had missed the last train and was had no confidence at being able to navigate the trams and buses. I tried to remember the short distance that Vernon had taken us after my first shift, but predictably got lost. I found it eventually and settled down upstairs. Free from my colleagues, I appreciated the place even more this second time. Here it seemed to me, at any hour, every queer fish of Charlottenburg will come to find sanctuary from the city. The café, I later found out, was originally created by West Berlin anarchists. It is open 24 hours a day (save for a few hours on a Tuesday afternoon), welcoming students, workers, clubbers, vagrants and all other creatures of the dark. With the candles at night the place becomes a little gothic, graveyard of lost decadence; an atmosphere which the cheery service can’t quite break through.  Upstairs has the look of a plush sitting room after a generation of disrepair and crumble, imbuing the café with the ambience of Dracula’s lost dining room, or an Edwardian set for the Rocky Horror Show. With each creak of the stairs one expects the ragged Steppenwolf to emerge from the shadows. There were candles on each table and I would collect on my table so I had enough light to read. My eyes were tired and every half an hour or so they drooped and I felt myself falling asleep. I decided I needed some food.  I had more money in cash from tips than I had since I had arrived in Berlin I decided to splash out. I bought another red wine which came in a glass the size of a small bowling ball, and a club sandwich. The later came in a tower to me on a plate and collapsed in a pile of crispy bread, mayo soaked chicken and sauce on my plate when I tried to raise just a quarter of it to my mouth.

The trains were running again at 4am and it was passed 5 when I finally got back to Marzahn. I passed a few old individuals with rat-sized dogs on leads as I made my way back to Max Hermann Straße. Into the empty flat I walked and before going to bed I slipped out on to the balcony. It was to be a beautiful day, and wasn’t begrudged by how much of it I would now miss sleeping. I gazed into the beautiful view that lay before me under the balcony. To my left was a grass field, for want of better word, peppered with clusters of trees. Over the tops of these trees I saw what looked like a small hill, invisible from the centre of the city. Over this the sun broke, and cast screens of sun on the pastel coloured Plattenbauten, the base of the U-shaped housing block I lived in. They stood at broken angles so they resembled the construction of a child playing with big lego bricks. Gazing upon the architecture I didn’t think ‘Communism!’ but thought that they would one day be seen in a better light by the rest of Berlin, and embraced by that which lies within the Ring.

I was for a moment secretly happy that Marzahn wasn’t caught up in the folds of Berlin; happy that it was apart, and that I was there too. It is not what I had come for, but it was what I had found. Below me the Spielplatz lay empty. Day was rising over Marzahn, and I couldn’t be happy to be there to witness it.
There of all places.

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

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