When I visited the flat in Marzahn that first time, Henri the Canadian had told me that he didn’t have job in Berlin but went to a language school. He took the course for free, as by payment he would put up posters for the school around the city. He had showed me one of them that evening – a colourful sheet of A4 with a picture of two studious ladies looking at each other aghast upon a sofa - and said casually that the school would be searching for someone new when he left. What with rabbits and anime cartoons the conversation quickly moved on and I forgot about it. However Red brought the subject up again when I had moved in and told me that before Henri had left he had mentioned to the people at the school that I might pop by. Suddenly the idea of starting a German course gripped me. I had never considered going to language school before, planning to simply boycott lessons and grammar and just learn German by immersing myself in the country. But in a city where everyone speaks English even for the most diligent the likelihood of the success of by osmosis is slim. In fact, my German seemed to have stalled since I had arrived. I thought that if I could take on Henri’s old position and receive the language lessons for free, I could take the classes in the morning, put up posters for them in the afternoon and then work on the Pub Crawl or at the Irish Pub in the evening.
Henri had already been gone a week when Red mentioned it to me again so I rushed to Alexanderplatz fearing that they might have already found someone to replace him. The school was on one floor of a large building just off Alexanderplatz. I was directed in the right direction by a skeletal and frosty receptionist and followed arrows to the office up a couple of flights of stairs and down a long corridor. As I approached a black tangle of fur came running out of one of the rooms and raced towards me barking. It leapt up at me and when I bent down to greet it bathed my face in little wet licks. Looking in to its face – if you could really cool it that – I could just make out two shimmering eyes beneath the curls, and then the little pink tongue that it presently put to work again. A call of ‘Maya!’ came from down the corridor and the two of us trotted down the rest of the corridor to the doorway from which the voice had sounded.
This was the school’s office I saw and here I found two women sitting behind desks heavily laden with packages and papers and coffee mugs. The office was small and full of files and books and in front of the two desks to my right was a little sofa and to my left a table where stood a great vat of coffee. One of the women in front of me was tall and thin with blonde hair down to her shoulder and looked like a younger version of Glenn Close. The other was short and plump with rosy cheeks and eyes as bright as the little dog. Both looked up at me however with tired and slightly weary faces. Maya rushed under their desks to a little basket in the back of the room where she sat, looking at me between the two women, her little tail still wagging.
I told them that I was Bertie and instantly their faces moulded like shifting theatre masks and they let out a collective shriek that roused Maya from a basket once more to join their chorus with her own shrill barks. I smiled a little awkwardly until they presently told me that they had been avidly expecting me since Henri had spoken to them and had been growing concerned that I wouldn’t turn up. ‘We didn’t think we’d find anyone again,’ the cubby one said in her thick German accent, coming to standing next to me. ‘But here you are!’ they let out a cheer and a round of applause again and, feeling a little awkward just standing there I joined their celebrations, but this felt even more ridiculous so I presently stopped.
At this point a third woman entered the office behind me and I was spun around and introduced as ‘the new Henri!’ and the jumping and clapping was given increased energy by the new addition to the little party. In a flurry of excitement and textbooks and yapping over the next three minutes all the particulars of this new partnership were laid out. I was to start the course the next week at the beginning of October. I could take a quick test to assess my level and then they would deal with the rest. I would work for them roughly 15 hours a week, putting up their posters on traffic lights and street lights around the city in certain key area. They confirmed that this would be my payment. I was soon as enthusiastic as they were and left the school feeling elated. It was only when passing the skeletal receptionist again that I realised that the only name of theirs I had learnt was that of the little dog Maya.
I shortly new their names, and over the next few months studying at and working for the language school I came to see myself more and more as ‘the new Henri.’ It was a funny feeling, as I was not only doing his old job but also living in his old flat. He was gay, like myself, and had arrived in Berlin almost exactly a year before me. Around the city I went replacing the tattered posters he had undoubtedly placed a few months before, and looking up at the walls during lessons, I would spot pieces of his work proudly hanging there. Red would constantly tell me fantastic anecdotes from the time that she and Henri lived together and, secretly, I came a little obsessed with the blonde Canadian that I had only meet so briefly that one evening, and yet whose marks and echoes of Berlin surrounded me, both at home and in the city. How did he live his life here in Berlin? How was it different to mine? In what ways was it better? And how would my life pan out after, I too left Berlin, and who would then follow in my footsteps …?
The language school began well. I was in a class of about ten people, all of us in our twenties, and a pretty broad mix of nationalities. Our teacher was a proud lion of a man called Martell. I would guess that he was in his mid-thirties, with a silvering neat beard, strong jaw and big brown eyes. He was tall and muscled, and if he hadn’t taken such obvious pride and in his work, teaching would have seen like a mismatched career for him. Yet he took a lot of pride, and did his job so well that you left each lesson mourning the fact that all the teachers of our childhood weren’t off his calibre and how better we would have grown up to be if they had been. Martell drew grammar tables on the white boards (of which about six were hanging on the various walls) in a small neat hand, as fine and précised as the flashcards and he handed out to us with the dative prepositions on. He delivered his jokes with the poise of a Shakespearean actor, and only the slight twitch at the corners of his mouth hinted that he was aware of his own humour. He only ever spoke German to us in slow, deliberate base tone. When marking at grammatical point for which he needed an English example, he would utter the world with disdain, as if saying the word ‘choo choo’ or ‘choki’ for the benefit of a child. Indeed, whenever he did speak English, he appeared smaller and younger than he did otherwise, so we soon too came to disdain the language when in the classroom.
I enjoyed the lessons very much and became friendly with a fantastically rude Frenchman called Martian, who worked in a bank in Budapest and a glorious Australian homeopath. Whenever Martian was making furious phone calls to his estate agent back home, or the Australian wasn’t rolling on the floor with Maya, the three of us would sit and drink coffee in the Pause looking at the maps of Germany and share stories.
One day on the way to language course, I suddenly felt that I belonged in Berlin. Not in terms of a lifetime or as an Echter Berliner, but in terms of, I have a class to go to, therefore I am in Berlin, and need to get off at this stop. It was a small but fantastical little feeling, a recognition of doing and being in a city, rather than simply wafting through. And it was funny that that feeling was provoked not by the flat or the Irish Pub, but by that funny little language school. Berlin seemed to be working for me, and reading the following words in David Downing’s Zoo Station, I felt, whether justifiably or not, that I could relate to them:
‘Home? No. I like it here. Lots of girls – they can’t do enough for you. And I’ve got my own property. What have I got in London? Five quid and a thank you very much? There’s nothing in London. You’ve got all the opportunity in the world right here.’
Even the Irish Pub I was beginning to enjoy. Over the next couple of weeks I was lucky enough to avoid working with Johnny again. Instead I was partnered with an assortment of others working there: the gloomy Merle; a beautiful boy from Afghanistan whose name I could never remember and my mumblings he could never understand; there was a hairy lad from Liverpool who had followed his girlfriend to Berlin, a ‘refugee of love’; and a thin, bespectacled young man from Serbia. I found a while after having first worked with this last one, that he was actually a supervisor at the Pub. This evidently didn’t deter him from turning at up work baked and singing to himself. He would make cocktails at a leisurely pace, expertly and with a camp nonchalance, then subsequently forget who they for and so set them behind the bar for us to enjoy.
New employees were regularly flooding into the pub, which is sure fire way to make any slightly less new person feel established and not quite so green. To my surprise, one evening I saw the depressed Lucie from the Pub Crawl turn up. She seemed a lot more cheerful now, actually smiling and telling me to send her best to Garth. There was a Swedish girl called Kaijer, with coffee-coloured skin and bouncing black curls, who began working the same time as Lucie. She was vivacious and chatty and had so much confidence that I thought she had been there a lot longer than me the first time when I first saw her. Whereas every little mistake and challenge that I had come across on my first shifts had sent me into a panic she would brush of the drinks she spilled and orders she got wrong by lifting her eyebrows and a letting out a sharp laugh.
One evening Kaijer and I were sent home early together and I took her to Schwarzes Café. Out on the little balcony we sat and smoked and shivered with two gruff old men. They were both Berliners, and in time, began to relate to us their memories of the fall of the wall, during which one of them began to cry. Somehow, the conversations soon moved on to Kaijer. They loved her and she pandered to them, while they ignored me, and she kept squeezing my leg. The men kept remarking how good her German was which I was sure was not particularly better than my own. There was a little awkward moment when she was going to get me my next drink, not wanting another for herself. The however offered to buy it, thinking it was for her. When the wine arrived and she promptly gave it to me, I was very aware of the scowls that she was oblivious to.
We left Schwarzes a little drunk and outside she offered for me to stay at hers, rather than taking the train across the city back to Marzahn. I declined and then after a deep breath she said: ‘Look, I’m really horny tonight and want some sex. Do you want to come back to mine to fuck?’ She was a little shocked when I said no, and then a little embarrassed when I told her why. I tried to ease her awkwardness and we managed to find a common love for cheese and wine and Harry Potter. We made plans to arrange a Harry Potter cheese night and parted a little stiffly at Zoo Station.
More than Kaiser’s proposition, it was the people on the balcony who stuck with me that night, for they were just a couple of the odd and eccentric characters I was to bump into out on that balcony. It was tiny, big enough for only two chairs, and from inside you could never see if someone was there or not. This meant that each time you went for a smoke you would be taking a risk regarding who you were to be squeezed up against.
One young couple I met out on the balcony stick in my mind. The boy had a large fringe that stood up straight like a wave from his forehead. He didn’t speak at all when I was there, and looked a more than a little irritated by the chattiness of his companion, and sneered sceptically at anything I said. She was a beautiful black girl, with long hair and big earrings. She spoke perfect English with a stilted American accent. She told me she was half German and half American and though she had been to the States a lot had always lived in Berlin. She told me that Charlottenburg was the place to be. I had never heard this before, and though I loved some little bits of it that I had found, didn’t believe her. She cackled with a laughter when I told her that I would like to live in Neukölln, and her companions scorn grew into a grimace, though at this point I wasn’t sure if it was directed at me or her.
‘But what about all the Turkish?’ she demanded of me. ‘There is nothing worth doing in N Neukölln.’ I didn’t think it was worth objecting. She has a ragged, frantic look in her eyes, which was unnerving, and I never knew from one moment to the next whether she would screech with laughter again and smile at me or attack.
When I had finished my second cigarette with them out on the balcony I was glad to get away. She offered for me to sit on her lap with her but I declined. They stayed out in the cold for a long time and eventually left an hour or so later. ‘Have fun in Neukölln’ she drawled as the passed my table. A fat woman took their place. When I went for my next cigarette I found that she was German and looked like she really ought to be home cooking or sewing, not hanging out at Schwarzes. I imagine she was about fifty or so, with charcoal damp hair over a glowing face. She had bulbous rosy cheeks and little black pebble eyes that twinkled. I spoke to her in a faulty German and when I lived she smiled broadly and wished me the best of luck in Berlin.
I was working on the Pub Crawl about two nights a week at this point. The whole thing had got a little drastic and there were many nights when I was the only promoter. Each day Garth relayed new schemes that the Irish boss had concocted, and told me in no uncertain terms why each of them was doomed to fail. Along with the promoters, the beautiful Hanns, Garth’s number two, had also quit. Now when Garth took days off Irish Dave would lead the Crawl. To my surprise, he was strict, and I ended up dreading making the calls to him to say that I had got no one, more than I had those to the disbelieving Garth or the quietly disappointed Hanns. Irish Dave would draw up a list of other hostels across the city I could try. ‘You might as well,’ he would say. ‘What do you have to lose?’
Desperately I would approach anyone I could. One group of about twelve German guys that I approached snapped viciously back at me, ‘Is this urgent? We are actually having a private conversation.’ Of course they were completely right. And I felt like the biggest fool. The less success I found, the less money I was earning, the more dispirited I got with this part of my Berlin life. This led me to frequent the bar in Prenzlauer Berg around the corner from one of the hostels, where the man had given me the inspiring speech about writing. Write. Just dare, and write ..!
Eventually even Irish Dave left the Pub Crawl. At first, I admit, I secretly hoped that he had been kicked out of his flat and had to leave Berlin and return to Ireland, which had looked likely at times. But this wasn’t the case. He had found work in a bar somewhere in the city and a few months later I found out to my surprise that he had been promoted to a manager there. Regarding the Pub Crawl, it now turned out that I was Garth’s number two and so it would fall to me to lead the Crawl whenever Garth was away or was otherwise occupied. The first time this happened we met at the opening bar so he could take me through everything before the punters arrived. He came with his big black satchel and showed me the purse and the ping pong balls and the flyers and took me meticulously through the rules of each drinking game.
But no-one arrived. Instead a tall, dark American appeared who I had seen before, and I knew worked on promotion for the wider Berlin Tours company that our Pub Crawl was only one branch of. The first time I had met this dark and sallow American I had felt a instinctual physical dislike of him, which came back all the stronger this second time. His laughed was painful to listen and his gaze rattling to be under. He was the type of person you would fear in the playground, whoever you were, and the type of person who without doing anything explicitly mean or untoward, made it possible once more to believe, that human beings really could be as brutal and horrific to each other as you see in films and read in books.
I don’t know why he had come to us that night, whether he was evaluating Garth’s work or was simply at a loose end and wanted some freeze booze and easy poon. But he was there for whatever reason, and stood outside the bar with Garth and I, making crude jokes with the tubby Australian and, like the men on the balcony, completely ignoring me. I noticed Garth dart wary glances at our new companion for the first few minutes, and his banter and chuckle came stalled, but he soon warmed up and his easy Australian nature rose once more and he and the American were soon laughing and joking together, Garth’s chortle the bass tone to the American’s harsh guttering snicker. The American told Garth tales of his Berlin debauchery and the Australian supplied some of his own exploits, looking cheekily up at the much taller American. The only sign that he wasn’t completely at his ease was the way he would shift the weight of his satchel from wide side of his heavy buttocks to the other and twist the Pub Crawl a flyer slowly into shreds in his chubby hands. They seemed to fall into a double act, the tall American leading with his hollow cheeks, harsh beard and sunken eyes, throwing up quips and expletives which the round Garth would pass back with encouragement and grins, and his own easy banter, his flowing locks of golden curls swaying about his furry cheeks.
As the minutes drew on, it became apparent that no-one was going to turn up that night and both of them fell silent. I hoped that a chance for me to leave was about to open up.
‘This is how it always is it?’ the American asked Garth, and Garth let out an odd little titter, perhaps hearing more of the menace in the voice than the disdain I heard.
Garth suggested that they make use of the night by going along to the second bar and speaking to the manager their, who had on a previous occasion indicated that he was open to extending his offers to the Pub Crawl. He turned to me and said that I should come along and meet him to as I would be running the Crawl that weekend. The bar was busy and hot and smelt sickly sweet. Plumes of shisha smoked hovered out of the smoking room and over the bar, and I felt faint, as I used to in Mass with the Catholic incense. The American and I stood just behind Garth at the bar while he spoke to one of the young girls working there. She looked bored and a little uncomfortable as Garth leaned over the bar and shouted in her face over the techno. The American soon barged his way in next to the Australian, and they stood there shouting and grinning at the girl while I leaned up against the wall and waited. Eventually she disappeared through a curtained doorway behind the bar and then returned with a tall bearded and greasy man who I assumed was the manager. It was the manager. He and the American shook hands and he fixed me with a disdainful stare for a few seconds when Garth indicated back over his shoulder. The Australian turned to me and told me they would be back shortly and the three of them disappeared through the curtained doorway. I could see them through the lining of the swaying material, three figures in the shadows, standing in a circle with the heads together. Occasionally they would pull back suddenly to fling their chins in the air and roar with muted laughter before simultaneously bring their brows together once more .
The blonde girl at the till looked at me curiously as she played with her hair and sipped on a drink of a bright azure. To break her gaze, more than anything, I ordered a beer, and took outside to have a smoke. I was on my third when Garth and the American re-emerged. They trotted out of the bar and were almost over the pavement when Garth turned and saw me and came back pulling me up by the arm and telling me that the Boss had rung and there would be a party of 80 that I would have to lead that weekend.
‘We have cracked a deal with Ahmed’, he said. ‘Half price on any cocktail and three for one for the ladies.’
This was ridiculous. Not one of the bars we went to would comfortably fit more than 40, and I said this.
‘They will this weekend,’ the American said as we walked away from the shisha bar. ‘If not – find some that do.’
Garth nodded encouragingly at this. ‘You think you can do it?’
‘Maybe we should call Irish Dave,’ the American said.
Screw Irish Dave. I said I would do it.
Bertie Digby Alexander