Saturday 19 July 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #17

            Bright mornings began to come more often and I was taken by surprise one day in late October when walking to Mehrower Allee I was compelled to strip off my jumper and put on my sunglasses. There was a sharp breeze but the sun shone through it notwithstanding and I revelled in the fantasy that it was summer again. Though goosebumps grew up over my skin I was also bathed in light, and smiled in the sun and felt a lifting wave of enthusiasm for the world as I walked across Alexanderplatz to my language course.

            I consequently arrived in a merry disposition. I was often one of the first of our class to arrive at the language course, but Martial was never long after and he would tell me about the nightmare of his search for an apartment in Budapest, his detestation for the French, and – so to practise his W-questions – he would ask me about myself: Wo hast du studierst? Woher kommt deine Mutter? Was hast du heute Morgen gemacht?  Martell would soon appear, walking slowly into the room with his rucksack, greet us with a ‘Guten Tag’ and a gracious nod of the head in approval at our attempts to speak German. He would place his rucksack on the table and pull out tupperware boxes of flashcards neatly held together with an elastic band; and also pens for the boards which he lined up on his desk. There were about four white boards on the walls, and one day another shining new one appeared and he proudly told us that the management had finally granted his request for a fifth.

As time went on, and he eventually granted us the privilege to be taught to use the word ‘weil’ not ‘denn’, and he alluded yet more promisingly of the Genetive, the awe we held for Martell didn’t dissipate, and regardless of our progression in the language we professed him to each other in awed whispers in the corridor as the best teacher at the language school, and said how lucky we were to have fallen into his class.

            After the lesson which ended at 3, I would occasionally go down to the café that sat on the ground floor of the building and there order a sandwich and coffee and do my homework. Henri had always done it on the train, Red told me, by I usually stood on the train and liked to look out the windows, so this wouldn’t work for me. Also, I enjoyed my homework too much too rush it. My first time at this café the young, pimply man behind the counter asked if I was from the language school. I told him I was and he asked me if I knew Martell. I told him Martell was my teacher and that it was Martell had recommended me the café, which he had, to all of us, during our first lesson. When I said this an expression overcame the pimply man’s face and for a moment I thought that tears were coming into his eyes. He looked vacantly into the middle distance somewhere above my head and it wouldn’t have been utterly discordant with his expression if the barista had then struck his breast with his fist in fervent regard for the regal language teacher. Alas, he only let out a sigh, and then set about making my coffee and preparing my sandwich – which tasted as joyous as the mood in which it was unconsciously prepared. Such was the effect of Martell.

            I only stayed in the café for half an hour or so and then would set about putting the posters up for the language school. We called this ‘plakateering’. This was another hangover from Henri. He was from Quebec, and therefore not a native English speaker and didn’t know the word ‘poster’ in English, nor the word for putting posters up. Nor did Red, and so they would use the German word instead, and convert it into the English configuration. This was then used with the shrill women who ran the school and spoke poor English and thus all of us referred to the thing as ‘plakateering’, though it really wasn’t and I really should have known the proper word.

With my bright blue bag from the school slung over my shoulder, laden with scissors, selotape and a great wad of the posters, I would go about the traffic lights and any other pole-like structure on the pavements and stick up the posters. The details of the schools were printed in a row vertically at the bottom of the posters, and cut into strips so passes by could tear them off. Putting these up on public property wasn’t illegal I assume, and everyone was doing it, but nonetheless the women at the school had told me that it was best if I walked the other way if I ever saw any of the Ordnungsamt around, and I was always anxious in expectation of hand falling upon my shoulder as I was occupied with scissors in my mouth and tape about my fingers. (The Ordnungsamt were like community officers who would regulate things like litter and noise and parking. The types who took great pride in their work and saw it as vital to the smooth running of the city. The type who relished their little jurisdiction of power and would rise fast in less democratic times.) Only once did anyone express any unalloyed disapproval at my plakateering; an old man who muttered at me and frowned and shook his head aggressively, but we were thankfully in the midst of a main rood and the lights were soon to change so he couldn’t linger. To my great surprise, for the next four months that I was to go plakateering no one else said a thing. It was just the stares I has to put up with, and this I could, with Harry Potter und Der Gefangene Von Askaban playing in my headphones. It would be a little embarrassing though when I entered a crowd waiting at the lights, and began untapping the tape which screeched like pulling up plywood with a great ripping noise and all eyes turn on me and waited expectantly to see what the poster would say. Children would come right up next to me and stare from the poster to me and back again and look up at their parents questioningly. It had been too embarrassing for Henri who had always done it at night.

I would do this at Alexanderplatz, as well as a few other choice locations: Jannowitzbrücke, Rosenthaler Platz, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Eberswalder Straße, and then from Kottbusser Tor all the way to Schlesiches Tor, over the bridge and then along Warschauerstraße and up to Frankfurter Tor. Because I would always take the old posters down when I put the new ones up, I felt that I really wasn’t doing anything that wrong at all, but instead I was helping the splurge of foreigners in the city find a place to speak German, and at the same time lightening up the streets with the bright yellow and green that the posters were cast in. What I did find a bit infuriating was the likelihood that they wouldn’t stay up long. Passing the place by the next week I would see pieces of the posters hanging limp by a few last strands of tape with a great vicious tear through their midriffs. I was never unsure if these people took issue of plakateering of any sort, or if it was the nature of the poster that they didn’t like. Either way it unnerved and exasperated me despite the fact that it made no difference to my work.

One day upon entering the office at the language school there was a flurry of excitement and Glen Close breathlessly asked me if I had been at Kottbusser Tor the day before. Yes, I told her, I had, wondering what on earth was the significance of this to cause such excitement. I had spent an hour there putting up about 70 of the buggering things on the multiple traffic lights that are dotted about the roundabout that rings the grimy station.

‘I have just got a call from a friend,’ she told me. ‘This morning on commute to work she sees a man ripping down all our posters. All of them! And vehemence!’

‘It must be a rival school!’ the chubby one put in, her eyes gleaming. ‘We are getting at them! Yes we are! Bit by bit we are getting at them!’

The two of them were on their feet letting out whoops and shrieks of joy which Maya soon added to yapping into the furore.

‘More! More!’ Glen cried staring at me.

‘Give that man more scissors!’ the other cried. ‘Tape and scissors! Tape and scissors!’ And Glen Close went about it without delay, diving into a cupboard which I saw to my dismay filled up of nothing but tape and scissors. In great handfuls she replenished my bag while giving me instructions to return directly to Kottbusser Tor that day!   

Besides my work at and for the language school, and despite the Irish Pub and Pub Crawl, I was principally occupied with compiling a guide of the Best Coffee House in Berlin. One of the responses I had received back from my fleet of applications to internships and jobs, sitting at the high table of the hostel just off from Kotti, was a company creating an app for tourists. With the app you could download guides to different cities such as ‘Best clubs in Barcelona’ or ‘Best Parks in London’. The guides would come complete with pictures of each destination, opening hours information as well as GPS co-ordinates. After sending them some writing examples of mine and telling that I had already lived in Berlin a year, I was commissioned to write up the Best 20 Coffee Houses in Berlin. Even though I didn’t really have the money to go flouncing around lounging in cafes and sampling flat whites, I thought it would be a good way of exploring more of the city, and could, in time, be worth my time financially. I would receive 50% of ever guide bought. I would be paid when my balance was higher than $100.

I have always loved cafes and coffee and so therefore believed myself to be well-placed for such a commission. Cafés have a certain refinery and elegance that pubs lack, and a calmness that eludes Kneipen; they is a mellowness that is rarely found in bars and clubs, and an ease and tranquillity that is not to be experienced in restaurants with their steaming kitchens, heavy plates, clattering cutlery, constant complaints, corrections and, ‘O hold on, I’ll just check with Chef …’

Cafés have romanticism about them, though being based around the humble coffee bean, cover a large array of activities and scenes, from crisp mornings before work, long newspaper brunches, light lunches, high tea, and wine and beer into the night. When the emerged over into Europe from the Ottoman Empire they revolutionised social urban life in the big cities, fostering the art of the likes of Alexander Pope in London and then after that Sartre and Proust on the rive gauche in Paris. In Berlin, great artists such as Kafka and Nabakov flocked to the city’s cafes, one in particular, Café des Westens, as I have mentioned in a previous post, became infamous for its glamour and the eclectic types who gathered to drink coffee there. 

Beyond art, the café ingrained itself into German culture with the popular ‘Kaffeeklatsch’ which essentially means ‘coffee, cake, and chat.’ Cafés in Berlin open early for breakfast (many doubling as ‘Bäckereien’) and are open much later than those in the UK. Many café doors stay open as late as Starbucks in New York City, and others later still to capture the night prowlers and clubbers coming home. Schwarzes Café is rare in that it is open all night, but there are also those such as Café Matilda in Kreuzberg that offers cocktails into the early hours of the morning. In the hipster’s Berlin of today, many of these cafés aren’t merely cafés, but also function as bookshops or, or workspaces, second hand clothes shops. Many offer live music, or bike repair, or art exhibitions, and in others, on offer are culinary delights such as all-you-can-eat vegan brunches and pressed vegetable juice, far surpassing the South Kensington delights of merely a croissant and cappuccino.

I judged it unfeasible to reconnoitre 50 or 60 cafés and then whittle the best of the lot down. Instead I would take recommendations from friends, magazines, and other guides, as well as following my own nose, and out of that form jumble together some sort of list. I was under no illusion that what I would have compiled at the end would truly be the best 20 cafés in Berlin, but it would do. Schwarzes Café I quickly decided would top the list. In second place came The Barn, which the ExBerliner told me was serving the best coffee in the city. I went there one bright Sunday afternoon, meeting up with an American au pair who I had met at Another Country. She was prim, and bookish, and dry, but would serve as a companion as well as anyone else and, besides, I didn’t have a score of people to choose fromIt was in Mitte, just off Auguststraße where I had been with my German friend and her sister for the launch of Berlin Art Week back in September. It was looking as beautiful as ever, the elegant older sister of the Kreuzberg’s shabby-chic. Luscious ivy was cascading down drain pipes Jurassic waterfalls and blanketing the side of some houses.

The Barn, is very small, and was packed when I arrived. There is no doubt when you enter that coffee brewing is serious business here. I stood a little awkwardly for a few minutes, a little in the queue and a little out the door until the au pair arrived and at my suggestion we took our coffees to go and began wondering through bright, refined Mitte. With coffee of this quality, I  didn’t worry about how uncool the casual fashionistas could make you feel, as they rode past on their bicycles, and similarly I ignored - sipping contentedly - the beautiful children in cool clothes who look out at you with upturned noses, from their parents’ galleries. We were in a new city entirely shortly, anyway. The thing about Mitte is that you take one turning and you are suddenly in an utterly different urban landscape. From hipster galleries, to roman architecture, to soviet blocks, to gaudy tourism. We soon found ourselves in the latter, but with coffee that good it was no matter. And anyway, finding ourselves back at Hackersher Markt it became beautiful, if crowded, once more, and we walked adjacent to the Spree back to Alexanderlatz. We separated here, and promised to meet up again soon. Of course, we never have.

The Barn I went to on the weekend but most often I would head off in search of these cafés after a couple hours of plakateering during the week. I would invariably get lost and fail to find the one I was looking for, but instead be attracted by the sight of another and wander in there instead. In places like Friedrichshain, with its maze-like criss-cross of roads this would often happen. This was only a bonus, due to the plethora of exciting little cafés and tea rooms around each corner.

One of the finest that I visited for the guide is Wahrhaft Nahrhaft on the corner of Reveler Straße. (The name of the café translates as the rather mundane ‘Truly Nutritious.’). True to the character of its location, this funny café offers an atmosphere of excess and revelry. It’s colourful and vibrant interior matches the buzz and excitement of Warchauerstraße. Inside, it looks like a dressing-up box has been tipped over an elegant sitting room. Bacchus has conquered this place and welcomes all passers-by into the tumbled chaos of the inside of a jack-in-the-box. The food – mainly snacky - is homemade, offering bagels, soups, ‘sinful’ cakes and other baked goodies. They offer freshly squeezed juices and speciality coffees for every season. It was another fine Autumn afternoon when I sat there, outside in the slightly chilly breeze, on a table strewn with the art sections of Berliner Morgenpost, caught and flapping under flower pots, and with guilty forks strewn across them amongst the crumbs of devoured pieces of pie.

Not far from Wahrhaft Nahrhaft is a small café called Cupcake Berlin. The headboard is cast in a bright pink, and the crowd bustling outside of it reminded me of the pictures of the famed sweet shop in the Giraffe the Pelly and Me. Indeed, inside it looks like the type that Willie Wonka may have interned at in his teenage years. The sweetness in the air that hits you as you enter is overpowering. As the crowd (no such thing as a queue here) moved forward, I eventually got a glance at the delicate pieces of doughy artwork displayed inside the glass counter. The cupcakes are handed over to customers, wrapped in little holders, or upon napkins, or in boxes. Received gratefully – and weakly, after the exasperatingly long wait - they are caressed by trembling fingers, cherished, and loved, before stuffed into fervent mouths. The great bearded Berliner who served me is as celebrated as the cakes themselves, and smiled indulgently as I pointed out my selection.  

These two cafés I had read about and actually found with relative ease. There were other days where I ended up getting lost in Berlin, with the scraggly map clutched between my fingers, dry mouthed and tummy rumbling wanting nothing better than to go home. After one of these frustrating afternoons I eventually found 3 Schwesteren.  This café-cum-restaurant is inside the great Bethanien in Mariannenplatz, Kreuzberg. What exactly the Bethanien is I am not quite sure. In the past it has been both school and hospital, and now hosts music classes, and art exhibitions. I approached the Bethanien from the Orianburgerstraße side, and so walked through the little park where the trees shone in their autumn splendour. The building has the feel of an old WW1 hospital, and once inside you can easily imagine wounded soldiers with tender nurses at their side. As I walked on, perhaps influenced by my recent television habits, the long corridors reminded me of some kind of gothic high school, and I kept my ears alert for the sounds of Buffy slaying vampires. Down such long corridors and then finally I got to a turn in the corridor with the sign for 3 Schwesteren. And this, it appeared to me, was the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts.

I was greeted by a selection of polite and sincere men in smart-cut casual attire who led me through the great room to my own table. The room was huge but there were only about eight of us there. Is this an old banqueting hall? I wondered. A gym? A theatre? A chapel? Is this just a café? Behind a spectacularly ornate bar were three impeccably dressed grown men who served me with the utmost courtesy and expertise, ready at the slightest gesture or nod to whisk to your side, often with the desired article itself already in their hands, without words having to be uttered at all, save for perhaps, on their part, a sharp, crisp, and quite, ‘schön.’ Exemplary service and fine coffee, but all together a little too grand for my taste.

The evening was fast approaching, that when I was supposed to lead the apparent 80 punters on the Pub Crawl. It shows my lack of regard for this promise, and in the validity that saw either the words of Garth or the Irish boss had, that I was not at all nervous. In Friedrichsahin I did a quick round of the bars that I would be taking them to, so I was sure in my mind where I was to go.  Arriving at the third bar I saw that there was even less sign of life inside it than usual, and the door was still closed. I rang Garth who told me he would do ring round some other ‘associates’ and get back to me regarding where we could go and what deals would be on offer. In my bag on the way over to the pub, my phone switched itself off and on again, and when I took it out of my pockets, I saw that it now demanded the security code for my new German sim card. I had no idea what this was and therefore had no way to get back into my phone or for Garth to get hold of me. Thankfully I had my English phone on me. In the bar, surprisingly full, I struggled with sim cards, and numbers, and tried to remember the dialling code for Germany.

Struggling and sweating with this in the corner of the sweaty bar I looked up at one point to see to my horror that the barmaid was pointing two people over to me. I got up and smiled and introduced myself and they introduced themselves. They were two bright Americans keen to explore Berlin, and announced me their guide in all things underground and electo. I smiled a little weakly and made a few sounds and awkward postures as if to validate the truth in their statement, but all this, in actual fact, probably had the complete opposite effect. They were now keen to pick my brain about where I was going to take them and what they could expect.

‘We are only in Berlin for two days you see,’ the blonde girl said to me while her boyfriend stood mutely behind her. ‘And we only want to see the best! Only the real. Nothing that I can find in Las Vegas made out of plastic.’

I tried to assure her that everything I intended to show her had never been found made out of plastic in Las Vegas, and there was no chance of her seeing anything phoney or remotely American, if that is what she desired. As I told her this I struggled with my sim cards and phones and dreaded to think what Garth was swearing into my answering machine. She placed yet more stipulations upon these ones and behind her the boyfriend glared stonily, whether at me or at her prattling I was not sure.

In time the girl stopped speaking and began looking around the near-empty bar doubtfully.

‘Aren’t you expecting anyone else?’

Eventually exasperated, I told her that I wasn’t, and that if she wanted to spend €14 I would give her a wristband that would get her in two the three bars and one club for free, but I couldn’t guarantee the standard or clientele of any of them, or, at this point, any discounted drinks. At this the two of them retreated to a corner for a short while and then returned telling me that they would pay the €14 but only if I took them to my favourite places.

I had neither expected or wanted this, but they we were. The night was dry so far and I was in no mood to party. Consequently  I ordered a round of tequila which never fails to do the trick. Then the girl, declaring she hated tequila and with an expression on her face as if she had snorted the salt and squeezed the lemon in the eye, ordered another round. Her boyfriend perhaps felt left out or rude, and so did the same. Then we were ready to go. We bought a beer each for the road. Passing the shish place and the slimy Turkish manager I pointed to it and him disdainfully  and told them that we would not be going there on any account, but it was, if Garth had been in charge, exactly where they would be going.  They followed my pointed finger their faces had an expression of disdain that perfectly mirrored my own. The slimy manager looked back, with both confusion and obstinacy.

My plan was to take down to Warschaerstraße and have a few drinks there, maybe play a few drinking games of my own invention. The tequila soon hit the girl and so our pace subsequently slowed, but all our voices rose. She wobbled in between her boyfriend and I, trotting merrily down Warschauerstraße and I was beginning to believe that this was building up to be a top night when the girl cut off singing and declared that she needed to go to the toilet. The tequila had hit her big boyfriend too now and he told me with passion that he would not less this night become another Prague! He then deigned to take no regard of her as she clung on to my arm and wined, and brought our progress to a holt on the pavement, imploring with large, owl eyes that I must use my Berlin knowledge to find her a toilette. I told there was none to be found where we were and that we would have to simply keep walking on until we got to the bar. She looked up the road in the direction we were going doubtfully, disbelieving that a toilet could be found in the crowd of noise and light that tumbled ahead.

Her boyfriend was now a little way ahead of. He had stopped singing but was walking with a gallant tred and showed no signs of slowing for us. I kept my eyes on him and we met him again at the lights. On the other side of Reveler Straße looking to go down in to Urban Spree the girl said again that she really couldn’t wait. She frowned at me and said, ‘I am being serious Bertie. Bertie! I need to find a toilet.’ Her boyfriend pointed over to the corners of the patch of grass where men and boys were pissing into the mud. ‘Go there if you have to.’ I had peed there many times and new it to be silage by this time of night. It smelt like festival toilets and I am sure I heard rats scurrying there on occasion. There was also no cover.  Nonetheless she headed towards the sound and smell of splattering piss and I turned away.

Alas, she soon came back, yet more desperate, and told us that she hadn’t found anywhere. I suggested again that we find a bar when a guy walked through us and knocked hard into her shoulder, reeling her round.

‘Whoooaaah Dude!’ She shouted and he turned to face her.  He looked to be as drunk as she was.

‘Hello! Where are you from?’ He was from Ireland and she was from the States and both parties were equally intrigued by the other, though perhaps for different reasons. The boyfriend was as equally attracted to this new character of the night and so I rolled a cigarette and let them talk. The Irishman lived in Belin and therefore commanded all the interest and respect that they had before found in me. Bumping into the girl seemed to have knocked her need to pee clean out of her as she was now bright and happy again as she stared at the Irishman.

‘Where are you going right now?’ she asked him.

‘Roker’s having a party up past Frankfurter Tor. You are welcome to come if you fancied it.’

‘But we don’t know Rocker,’ the girl said with disappointment and fear on her face. She looked imploringly at her boyfriend who appeared equally concerned.

‘No. But you know Mac. Right?’ He said with such intent, and with an expression mixed between a grimace and cold stare that I wasn’t sure if he was Mac and thus was coaxing them into familiarity or if Mac was a third party all together and he honestly believed the Americans to be familiar with him. If it was the latter, looking at that face, God help them when he found out the truth. The Americans nodded slowly not taking their eyes of his stare. ‘Well, c’mon then!’ he said, breaking the spell, and strutted off into the night without looking back. They followed him a few steps before remembering me. O, is this OK Bertie? It was more than OK? You don’t want to come along. I didn’t. Buffy and weed was waiting for me in Marzahn. Well, then, thanks for everything! And the followed Mac, of whoever he was, to Roker’s, or wherever it was, back the way we had come.

‘You don’t mind?’ the girl cooed. I told her I didn’t, and brightly the three of them headed off into the night, led by the Irish man. I watched them go for a bit and then turned to the bridge and returned to Marzahn.
Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

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