Sunday 29 June 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #16

In my flat in Marzahn I slept on a sofa-bed which I had believed to be just a sofa for the first few months of my time there. The new blind that Red had found for me and proudly presented on my first evening there, fell down in a tired heap the first week and stubbornly resisted going back up. The moon – perhaps shinning off the Platenbauten – flooded through the window at night and at weekends I would wake up to my room drenched in sunlight. The window was always open, both to help my clothes dry on the apparatus that took up almost the entire floor space of my room, and to combat the smoke that hung in clouds in the living room. Little noise came through the window, as the area was so quiet, but Milla the rabbit made up for this by crashing about her cage in the night when she had been let out to roam the flat in the evening. I would lie fuming, trying to fall asleep before springing naked from bed and storming out of the room to confront her. By the time I got to her cage she would be sitting in the corner she always sat at, not making a move or a sound, turning to look up at me with a reproachful expression as if I was the one suddenly disturbing her sleep. We got on better in the mornings when I emerged from my room and she hopped to the front corner of her cage and tried to push her funny little twitching nose out between the bars. Red said she liked me because I was a man, and as with her past male flatmates, she wouldn’t poo on the floor if they were around. This wasn’t quite as true as I would have wished, but I certainly got on better with the rabbit than Smokie. Milla took an instant dislike to my French flatmate and would habitually creep up to her and pee at her feet if she was in one place for long enough.

I was fast approaching Day 50 in Berlin and it was much on my mind. It hadn’t been that long before that I didn’t think I would make Day 30. Nothing to get too excited about I told myself – that would come at Day 100 – but a landmark nonetheless. I was looking forward to Christmas more than anything else. Red was often raging about all the festive songs she had heard that day and the little chocolate Santas she had seen. She hated Christmas creeping in autumn, like a lot of us, but was irregular in that she would say this while seasoning a great vat of Glühwein, which she told us was the only permitted exception. She would force mugs of the sweet stuff – without cinnamon she insisted, that was only for Christmas – upon Smokie and I and we settled down together to watch an episode of Buffy die Vampire Jagerin while Red rolled up another joint.

I was very happy with the two girls and thought I had been lucky to end up in a flat with them. The fact that both Smokie and I had moved in at the same time, and so the three of us were all equally getting to know each other, made the process easier than it would have been I they had both been there and been close when I arrived. Red was certainly the Mutti, but in the early weeks I saw much less of her than Smokie. They were both usually asleep before I left for my language course in the week, but when I came back early from the Pub Crawl or on an evening off Smokie was usually up. Red would most often be in her room, sick, sleeping or having sex, smoking a spliff whatever undoubtedly. 

I spoke with Smokie in a mixture of all three languages, from German to French to English, and tried to piece together some form of understanding. Usually I would start in German, filling in the gaps of my vocabulary with French words. However both my German sentence structure and my French accent were so poor, that her face remained in a crumpled quizzical expression, until I shamefacedly resorted to the English. She would then go through the process again, speaking good German and even better French, both largely incomprehensible to me, and then also resort to English, which was as bad as most French people’s English, but much better than either my German or French. Somehow we managed to get by and in time, the disdained English began to crop up less and less in our conversations.  

We would sit together long evenings drinking wine together and planning a cheese day and a trip to Potsdam, neither of which ended up happening. Red would stumble in from her room now and then through a cloud of marijuana, spluttering out a cough and wearing only her knickers and a light t-shirt, fumbling in the kitchen to make some tea and up turning the vegetable shelf in the fridge for Milla to feast on.  

I remember laughing a lot with Smokie but, as is common, can’t remember what we were laughing at. Our level of understanding was so patchy I can’t imagine many of the jokes we laughed at being that sophisticated, or at least, if they were, they were likely different jokes, and though laughing at the same time we were really amused by our own fancies and images that the other was utterly unaware of. I do remember on one occasion I was attempting to speak French, and I mistakenly used  ‘chou fleur’ as a term of affection in French. This caused an unforgettable reaction in Smokie who, like a little party cracker had gone off in her chest, seemed to bounce up from the sofa with all of her features exagerated. She had been placing a cigarette to her lips the moment I had said ‘chou fleur’ and therefore as she bounced up from the sofa the cigarette seemed to leap on its accord, as if in a desperate dash for freedom, out of her mouth and towards the table. Her eyebrows seemed have a similar idea, rising so high up her face that they were like those erratic cartoon eyebrows that hang suspended over an individual’s head, with apparently nothing attaching them to the brow at all. Indeed, this image of Smokie was so amusing, if lasting only for a moment, that I was soon in as great hysterics as she was. Though I don’t know if I had made such a funny portrait. Eventually she settled into snort and snuffles and lit another cigarette. Speaking in such a mess of misunderstanding was actually completely alright, not done enough perhaps, and much safer than understanding, and wherever that might pose to take you.

I had been so focused upon the end of summer and the approaching Siberian winter that I had completely forgotten autumn and was therefore surprised when Berlin suddenly bloomed into ruby and gold. The trees on my walk to and from Mehrower Allee passed the green box school was now canopied with trees bearing leaves crisped into gold and were one by one beginning to fall at my feet. Schlesisches Tor was particularly spectacular, especially from the view of the U1 trundling over the Spree from Warschauer Straße. Looking down upon the bunched trees it looked like a scene from the fall in New England, and each time I would crane my neck to try and spot the statue of the man with his dog in the middle like a merry early morning walker.

These leaves, reminded me and more of home. I had realised that I wouldn’t be able to fly back home in December for Christmas. Erik was giving me less and less shifts at the Irish Pub and for some reason I seemed to be getting less money in tips as well. Buying the much needed new winter jacket and snow boots looked like it would be tricky enough. So thoughts of home were never far from my mind, and they were spurred on by the autumn trees. I remembered frantically collecting conquers through the fallen leaves, kicking clumps of brown leaves around the playground at school, and watching our terrier frolic in them on walks in the countryside. One particular memory that was stirred up was one of getting separated from my mother and sisters when walking in the arboretum in Gloucestershire. I can’t actually remember being apart from them, but I do recall my sisters discussing what would have happened if I had never been found, on the journey home.

‘Well we would have got all his presents’, one said.

‘No,’ the other objected. ‘They would have been stored in his room.  Or he would have simply stopped getting them.’

I wonder what will happen to my presents this year, I thought mournfully after another long shift at the Irish Pub. Later finding myself once again reading damp spy literature in Schwarzes Café, these words from Joseph Kanon’s novel The Good German took on a certain significance:

‘Jake hadn’t seen football in years, and now, unexpectedly, the sound on the field took him back to sunny afternoon when nothing mattered except the next ten yards and who you might be seeing after the game … it was the homesickness of an exile – what you missed was your own youth, not a place … He shifted in his seat, embarrassed by his own nostalgia … yet there it was, the unexpected longing, triggered by a football game. Who he was, as inescapable and permanent as a birthmark.’[1]

But most of the time the beauty of Berlin in autumn was enough to ward off yearnings for home. One of the most beautiful corners of the city that I stumbled upon was one morning was the canal at Kottbusser Brücke in Kreuzberg. I found myself here one morning before the language school, in smarter trousers, shoes and shirt than I had worn since coming to Berlin. A couple of weeks before I had received a response to an internship application I had sent off in the second hostel, a tip off from Mo. A cast-off of his actually, as he would habitually remind me in the future when asking how it was going. The whole thing looked a little too techy for me and the pay wasn’t great. However, with only two shifts a week at the Irish Pub, the pay was better, and, I thought it would be short-sighted and unadventurous not to go along to the interview.

Despite the good memories of the second hostel, I hadn’t warmed to Kottbusser Tor which I found particularly ugly and dirty – even for Berlin standards – and held none of the charm that could be found round the corner at Oranienstraße or even down the tracks at Görlitzer Bahnhof. Yet just a tree minute walk down Kottbusser Damm you come to the bridge over the canal. I hadn’t been down this road since handing out CVs during my first week in the city. Arriving 30 minutes early for my interview I bought a coffee and wandered East along the Uffer, on the Kotti side of the canal. The company I was interviewing for was located in one of the big buildings looking over the water. Having spotted its sign and the words ‘Hof 1, Etage 2’, I assured myself that I wouldn’t have any problems finding it, and carried on wandering.   

There were a couple of willow trees hanging over the water by the bridge, caricatures of themselves, and reminding me of the ones that stand at Schlesisches Tor on the banks of the Spree. On the water there was about fifteen swans, placidly making their way up and down the canal, looking about them with that slight aura of arrogance, that of a smug but slightly defect toff, that I believe is innate to swans. The bushes I walked passed rustled and tweeted as little worker sparrows scrambled up about inside them scavenging for crumbs and grubs.

Discarding my empty coffee cup I returned to the building the office was in, and told myself to get serious, which I really wasn’t feeling. To the right of me as I walked into the Hof was a little café called ‘Concierge Coffee.’ The name I assume is derived from the little hole in the wall which looks into the café by the till and coffee machine, where a tall and spindly barista stands, flat brown hair swept over to one side of his face and a great bushy moustache. He didn’t smile as I passed by, but I peered through the hole nonetheless and saw the small interior of a café, brick walls and one little wooden bench. Small and functional it was classic a Berlin café.  I was to later to find out that ‘Concierge Coffee’ is regarded as one of the best ‘third wave’ café’s in Berlin and the unsmiling moustached gent a big name in the coffee circles of Berlin. 

Into the first Hinterhof I turned right and saw the plaque of the company once again next to an open doorway into one of the buildings. Outside of which stood a light blue vesper and next to it an Oldtimer. All very European I thought to myself, smiling. There was a rickety old metal cage lift next to the staircase that looked like it belonged in a warehouse or on an oil rig. It was cold and bare and dark on the stare well, and it didn’t feel like I had gone ‘inside’ at all. It looked to me like it was all deserted. Up to the second floor I pushed the doorbell and a tingling sound came out and with a buzz I entered the office that was flooded all the light that the stairwell was deprived of.  I was greeted by a young girl behind a little reception directly opposite the door. A glass conference room was to my right, and in front, beyond reception spread out on the polished wooden floorboards and within the while walls, were about 100 desks, hosting computer and worker. Apart from the tapping of keyboards, the office was almost silent, which made a contrast with the bright light and appearance of action about me.

I was led by the friendly receptionist into a small side room. No one turned our way as we passed which I found odd. She then left to grab me a coffee. The room I was in was bare, no doodles, no scratches no papers, not even pictures – it was clean, and cool – functional lack of clutter, it was a mac of a room, an iRoom, good-looking enough to lick – beautiful and expensive and self-consciously cool, and yet would never feel the butt of a cigarettes, the touch of spilt liquor or hear sounds other than those of work. The receptionist returned with my coffee and to my surprise began interviewing me herself. I floundered from the offset, realising with a jolt that I actually didn’t have a clue what the company did, and seeing that the only card I had to play was ‘ignorant but keen’  which I did, gushingly.

I left the interview almost certain that I hadn’t secured the position, but oddly satisfied with the experience nonetheless. It had been quite cool to see inside one of these buildings that appear to be nothing on the outside, but within hold the heart of the Berlin start-up tech scene, fast, ambitious, growing. And the internship had brought me to this part of town. I had a while before I had to go and join Maya, Marco and Martial at the language school and so deigned to take a wander about.

Following Kottbusser Damm down, away from Kottbusser Tor, I wandered. This street is peppered on either side with kebab joints, Späties, Turkish tailors and costume shops with mannequins of children, dressed up like prince and princesses, shining hair and made-up purple eyes. It is bustling for Berlin, but not like that of London. People aren’t rushing to get anywhere, people are just out an about. Women in burkas pushing prams, others with their bikes; old and fat men sitting outside the kebab, Späties and cafés drinking tea and smoking.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, I was to discover, there is a market that stretches along the canal to the left if walking away from Kotti, on the other side of the canal from the building I had been interviewed in. Cheap vegetables and fruit can be bought here (the further in you venture, the cheaper they are) and also stalls selling vegetarian wraps, falafel, baklava and gozlemes.  At the end of the market it becomes less Turkish and more hipster. Here you can find ice cream, fresh fruit juice and coffee. Here there is also a little platform like pontoon but attached to the bank and hanging over the river. When the weather is nice people gather to smoke and drink and eat their snacks and there is a busker who plays.

Following this road down you can turn right into the little streets of Kreuzberg which all look the same to me, and I frequently get lost along. There was building works going on, so I walked back to Kottbusser Damm and walked down to Schönleinstraße U-Bahn station. Crossing the road here and turning right of Kottbusser Damm I came across quitter streets such as Graefestraße which looked as fantastic as Schlesisches in autumn. Here are gourmet pubs and cafes that sell cocktails and play retro electro and in between the buildings and streets are little tarmac sport courts with high fences were Turkish men and boys are often playing football. The noise from Kottbusser Damm can barely be heard here.

From this point, if I chose, I could walk further into West Kreuzberg towards Gneisenaustraße where the quirky bookshop Another Country is, further on to Mehringdamm, and Platz der Luftrbrücker and the English Theatre Berlin, and just up from the Tempelhofer Feld. Alternatively I could walk south towards Neukölln, the junction of the two districts in my mind meets at Hermannplatz. While many most love Kotti and scorn Hermannplatz I am the opposite. Banks and gyms and bowling alleys ring the square (whereas bars hostels and kebab joints ring Kotti) but the place is more open. The two dancing golden figures – they look like elves, or pixies of some sort - rising from the top like a juvenile nelson’s column, always look towards hope and joy and life. Walking straight through Hermannplatz and onto Hermannstraße we would venture deeper in Neukölln, noticeable when graveyards begin to stretch out on either side of you. Towards the end of this you would come to Emser Straße where Mario and my friend lived.

            I had no idea of this then though. As I wandered back through ‘Kreuzkölln’ to catch my train to the Alexanderplatz and the language course a swarm of the little sparrows swept up in front of me, across the road in a fluttering blanket, and then up into the sky, over the other side of the bridge and across the water. I thought: would be a great place to live and it would be fine to work around here. Perhaps in summer I will find a place to live around here.

             But I had to enjoy autumn first, while it was lasted. The city was changing again. Soon I would reach Day 100, and as more tables began to be brought inside and big coats aired once more, in more houses than mine Glühwein would be bubbling in vats across the city.

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

[1] The Good German, Joseph Kanon, p147

1 comment:

  1. Seriously, I love your writing style. I can't help but continue reading.... somehow lured along by curiosity, as I am with paths leading deep into the woods, or maybe it's something inside me that can relate and somehow - just like all those other vain women I stumble across in my mundane life - I find myself really struggling to look away from the mirror. I see myself in your reflections upon the "early days" in this city.... oh man. Remind me to play the song "I'm doing fine" sometime... haha. About a lying, cheating boyfriend and I'm getitng over him by riding the S-bahn in circles. :-)