Thursday 25 September 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #19

The afternoon had run from me through cups of bitter coffee and fruitless research. It had been dark outside for a while now, and integrated within the pattering of fingers on keyboards that resounded throughout the office was the faint but persistent splatter of rain. The lines of desks that cut across the office were portraits of concentration and diligence, heads poking forward, backs hunched over, and everywhere remarkably quiet. Apart from the keyboards. We each continued diligently tapping. The scene of the rats being milked in The Simpsons came into my head. When the clock passed five bubbling chatter began in fits and starts as people prepared for the weekend. Those who came in early tidied their desks and promptly left. The briefing of my task sat on my desk glared up at me accusatory, as did the half empty sheet shining out from the computer screen. Free beer and sofas lay in wait at six in the common room that stood opposite my desk ringed with glass walls. On skype colleagues were smacking their lips and preparing for the race for beer in the fridge. I was barely half-way through my task, and all tasks must be finished by six on Friday.

The Mean Girl intern next to me had left early leaving behind an opened packet of caramel chocolates that lay sprawled over the seam where our tables met. When she was away one day these chocolates had been placed on her desk by one of DE marketing lads; guys who strode around the office hench and bearded as if they spent the days hunting elk and whoring, not pinging of emails and filling in spread sheets. Returning to her desk the girl had barely noticed these chocolates let alone sample one. She was stick thin, and they were wasted on her, I thought, eyeing them. We had both been part of a group that went to lunch together a few times and I had watched her delicately place three thin slices of camembert on a Ryvita biscuit, as the whole sum of her lunch. She barely noticed the chocolates but the furious tapping on her keyboard had upset the packet and they had gradually begun spilling out around the foot of the plant that stood on the corner of my desk. I was on a strict budget and would usually eat lunches of a quarter avocado spread over two slices of bread. That was likely to be my supper as well, alongside any of Red’s leftovers in the flat, and so these little chocolates lying belly up on the table had been drawing my gaze all week. Each individual one was wrapped up, but still, I considered, they won’t last for ever. Maybe they aren’t even hers, and that is why she hasn’t touched them. Kai, who sits to my left, is nowhere to be seen. The Brit opposite is absorbed in his screens. My hand darts out to snatch one of the chocolates and I tear the wrapping in remarkable speed, then shove the whole thing into my mouth. It wasn’t what I had expected. Its fragile shell broke easily in my mouth submitting its gooey, caramel innards that spread over my tongue and the roof of my mouth making it delectably hard to chew. I took a gulp of coffee which complemented the chocolate wonderfully. I see the eyes of a German girl further down the table glance up at me for a moment, accusatively, silently, and then back to her screen again. She has the hair and demeanour of a 50s New York secretary; she taps and clicks in a steady rhythm all day and laughs with her head flung back in the kitchen but can always spare time to send a sharp look or sniff of disapproval. Not just to me, thankfully. I don’t know if the Brit opposite me noticed. He certainly doesn’t care. His eyes haven’t moved, but it is hard to tell due to the fringe that droops down over his face. I finish the cold coffee in another gulp and stand up to get another.   

More and more people are leaving the office. They and the time distract me from my writing but the chocolates distract me more. I take another. The Brit definitely saw me this time, but he seems unfazed, and in turn takes another pistachio from the great packet that slouches next to his mouse pad. I take another. Soon I am eating more chocolate than I am writing words. The 50s girl’s eyes keep darting up. I plough on, nonetheless. Eventually I realise they are all gone when my hand darts into the packet and meets only smooth plastic. I feel sleepy and deflated afterwards and still have 200 words to write. It’s almost beer time. 

This was the third Friday at the new job, marking two weeks since I had begun. I felt as lost then as I had the first day I arrived. Being enveloped back into the world of 9-5 weeks had proved as disorientating and unnerving as it had when thrown out of that world upon leaving school five years earlier. The day I began the new job, the first mistake I had made was to consent to the induction talk being delivered in German. ‘I need to learn!’ I said chuckling jovially, as is my bent, settling down in the meeting room. Horror enveloped me as I failed to pick out one word from the stream of instructions and introductions delivered. Four of us interns sat facing the HR lady that we had met at our interview. The person sitting next to her was clearly important but I had no idea who she was. I turned the pages of my ‘Mein Erster Tag!’ booklet and tried to laugh when the other new interns laughed, and nod and look similarly earnest when appropriate.
     This was to be the first of many mistakes I was to make that week. I had had only a very vague conception of what the company was embarked upon before I had begun, and now I was there and being instructed in German, I began flailing desperately. Each day was made up of embarrassment, puzzlement on both my part and that of my colleagues, headaches, grim coffee and a constant sense of dread and an awareness of my own awkwardness.

After being shown to my desk that first day I was given a hefty pamphlet to read and told to set up email and skype accounts. I had just set about translating the first sentence of the pamphlet when I noticed the other new interns collecting behind my desk. They began jabbering to me as I looked blankly back. I wasn’t sure what they were saying but they clearly meant for me to go along with them somewhere. Me in tow, we then began introducing ourselves to each desk in the office in turn: our names, where we came from, how old we were, what we would be doing at the company … etc. There were about 100 people working there and new desks cropped up in before-unseen corners and behind great walls of foliage. Although I could get my paltry German schpeel out OK, when this was done and the predictable jokes were made – ‘Haha, I assume you won’t be working for the German team?’ - I had to stand and listen to the responses which dragged on and on. We managed to get through a large bulk of the office that first day. I thought we would leave it at that but over the next two days the interns would come and fetch me in excitement when they spotted an employee they hadn’t yet met enter the office.  

  I managed to set myself up on skype and was then added to various chats: Redaktion, Team UK/US, … etc. Smiles with party hats and rolling eyes and ticking clocks on skype messenger kept blooping up on my screen. I was as unpractised in the language of these emoticons as I was in German. I soon began to ignore the blooping completely, and it settled into the background of tapping keyboards and my growing internal confusion. I assumed no one really needed to get in contact with me anyway. The other new interns soon appeared to decide that I was some kind of imbecile and after lunch on the first day stopped speaking to me save for in impatient, patronising tones. I was given some supposedly simple tasks to complete and descended into a solitary muddle of confusion.
         ‘That’s that’, the Brit opposite says. ‘Beer time’. He echoes the sentiments of the faceless internationals on my skype chat. He gets up from his desk, shoves the packet of pistachios in a huge pocket or the khaki jacket on his chair and heads straight for the fridge. His ‘that’s that’ sounded much more like a ‘Fuck-this-shit-o’clock’ than a ‘Finished!’ and I wonder if I should follow suit. The 1950s secretary doesn’t look like she has any intention to move. I stayed with my article. I felt her glare on me and the empty packet of chocolates. This could turn out very awkward if I am confronted on Monday.

By way of them adding me to their skype chat, pretty promptly I had been scooped up into the UK / US social group. This was principally for lunch plans and links to amusing Buzzfeed articles, but occasionally it would become thrilling, when for instance they narrated the firing of a Spanish intern. There were about five others on this chat and each was situated at various different parts of the office, so each with their own particular vantage point of the action. Therefore where one would break off the narrative when the manager had taken the doomed intern in question out of their view, another would pick it up outside the doors of the glass conference room they had entered, while a third would paint a picture of the shell-shocked and apprehensive Team Spain table.

Being near the kitchen, my duty was to inform them when the fruit had been delivered. I was situated in Online Redaktion amongst a sea of Germans with only a smattering of Auslanderen. I occasionally went to lunch with the UK/US team but more often than not – due to finances – I brought food in and would take it to a bench outside and sit looking over the canal. The swans, with their nobly black beaks and vacillating necks glided gracefully on the water, occasionally breaking up into flight and descended in a noisy battering of wings and water. There were ducks to that I liked to feed, nosing up and down the water and groups of two and threes (It is OK to eat duck, so long as you feed the ducks, I say to myself.). Sparrows would soon hop up at my side, looking up at me with open mouths and little black eyes. (The Berlin sparrow loses all charm when close up and begging for crumbs.) Rats scuttled about in the foliage two, and once I was sure that I saw an otter. On this stretch of water the buildings rising up beyond either bank were grand and glorious with cascading ivy, peeling roofs and ornate white balconies. On the ground floors of these buildings were cafes and kebab huts which opened out when the weather was fine with tables and white sombreros. Hipsters smoking pot would sit on the bank, fat Turkish ladies would wheeze passed pushing trolleys and calling back to children, and Yummy Mummies with babies and dogs would jog passed. These were quiet times; I would quietly revel in the beauty of this little stretch of Kreuzberg, though unsure of my place within it and apprehensive about the return to the office.  Soon it became too cold for lingering lunches outside.

So instead I began to eat at my desk, justifying my unsociability with the growing amount of personal emails and living admin I had to deal with. I felt set apart from the rest at the office, both from my compatriots returning from lunch to their table and from my German colleagues in Redaktion. Sitting scruffy in grand meeting rooms with the latter, I would contemplate how bizarre it was that I was there, and not shivering on the steps at Frankfurter Tor with Garth, or spilling pints next to Jimmy at the Irish Pub. Since when had that become the norm? At the office I smiled at everyone and a few smiled back. I sat at my desk, struggling to make sense of my tasks and regularly popping back to the kitchen for more fruit and coffee, which was freely available. The German everywhere combined with the techy nature of my work – a lot more to do with URLs and code than I had ever managed – threw me off and I was reeling for the first month. I used the coffee machine while it was cleaning itself, and spilt banana juice all over my trousers. I was sure that at some point soon, someone would tell me that I had stumbled in where I wasn’t supposed to be, that there had been a mistake, and I would be promptly shown the door.


Around this time, still ploughing through Berlin literature, I read Elias Canetti, author of Auto-da-Fe. On his first impressions of Berlin, Canetti writes: ‘So here I was in Berlin, never taking more than ten steps without running into a celebrity … I was a nobody here and quite aware of this; I had done nothing; at twenty three, I was nothing more than a hopeful. Yet it was astonishing how people treated me: not with scorn, but with curiosity, and above all, never with condemnation.’[1]

I was certainly a nobody at this office but I certainly didn’t feel as welcome as Canetti did, innocent and running into his stream of celebrities. Additionally, I did feel condemnation, justified though it may well have been. Nonetheless, literature continued to fire my imagination and it was spurred on by a handful of characters as bright as those of Garth and Jimmy, convincing me that this was not simply falling for office life, but instead just another step in my Berlin adventure.

More than any perhaps, was the other Brit in redaction. CP, people called him, and he could have been 25 or 45, but under the stubble on his chin and the mattered dark hair that fell over his eyes, the smell of coffee and cigarettes that radiated from him and the tattoos that climbed up his lean biceps, age was of no consequence; he had years in his eyes, big night scarred across his hands and flowering over his lips. He was soon moved from opposite me to a shadowed corner of the room, perhaps all the more suitable for his mysterious appearance. He was only in two days a week, and our interaction was boiled down to short skype messages on who would write which text that day. There were no smileys in his messages, but he was likeable nonetheless, and surprisingly warm on the rare occasions that we passed each other in the flesh.   

After work on the evening of that third Friday I saw him drinking beer with other Brits and a New Zealander behind the glass walls of the kitchen. I couldn’t see whether my team leaders were at the desks or in the kitchen drinking beer as well. The German girl finally left and I was alone at the long table. Kai appeared at my elbow, hair swept to one side, crimson cheeks, his Roman noes pointing down at me, and long black coat rustling.

As mysterious and captivating as CP was the proud and glorious Kai, who was placed on the desk next to me for a week or so, amongst the rag and bone interns and trainees, an HR choice I think he was as confused by as I was. Naturally the mistake was soon rectified and he was moved to a more important table further into the office. He had a crooked smile and a small red birthmark or scar on his forehead, that made him look as if he had been sitting next to Gorbachev and received a splattering infamous spilt wine. He wore sober, smartly casual clothes, cords and chinos in brown, and dark green and beige, under jet black winter coats. He wore scarves in a striking maroon, slick black gloves and mahogany shoes that clicked and snapped throughout the office. Though he was new like me, he was no intern and would march about the office, mixing with everyone from the big bosses to simpering receptionists and lowly blushing interns. With his purposeful gait and calm surveying look, he could have been hero or villain, big brother or bully, and so long as his green eyes were turned on you, it didn’t matter whether they were twinkling or piercing. He had some power in the office; an influence, a magnetism. Others ate with him at lunch in the kitchen; him sitting, them standing, resting their chins on their hands, their elbows on the counter and their bottoms sticking out like dogs in heat. The young receptionist who had been my best friend on my first day and then refused to recognise me would often come and squat next to his desk and gaze up at him. Throughout the day he smokes with the DE marketing lads, walking out into the frosty courtyard and back in the office with them like a sleek wolf amongst burly hounds.

Who is Kai? I habitually asked myself. It appeared that no-one was exactly quite sure what his role in the company was. He would lead long but vague meeting on general office efficiency, informed by the private interviews he conducted with each member of the management. He was added to every chat and would occasionally fire of emails to me with instructions for seemingly random tasks to be completed as fast as possible.

Steell verkeeng, hmm?’ He says in a thick German accent, which makes me think nonetheless that no one has ever before spoken the words with such conviction and suave. He has already a beer in his hand and a packet of cigarettes in the other. He looks down at me, smiling a little crookedly, as he ties a neat scarf around his neck. I must go for a beer with Kai one day, I thought.

‘He worked in the German Embassy in Paris,’ someone had said.

‘He speaks perfect French,’ another pitches in. ‘In fact, I thought he was French at first.’

Who is Kai? He is a Schindler, he is a Goethe, he is certainly something. ‘Don’t verk too late,’ he says, rubbing his hands together as if he could already feel the cold waiting for him outside. ‘Vee all verk too much az it ees.’ And then he winked, we made me think what he was really saying was that he worked too much, and should try to too. He left and I carried on tapping away at my keyboard.

I could admire Kai without, I think, falling for him with the Wonderlust that the rest of the office seemed to. Perhaps because I was the only person that sat next to him, or that I was foreign and very much in my only little world in the office, although strictly speaking he was my superior, our departments and circles in the office were so apart, that our roles in the machine were irrelevant to how we interacted and interfaced, over scones, over scarves. I was the smiling Brit with big hair and not much idea – Kai was the snappy and shinning new boy from the Embassy. I really must go for a drink with Kai, I thought. He was the big brother every boy wanted.

Alas, his downfall was as spectacular as his soaring ascendancy. Amongst spilt gin and a burst water pipe at the Christmas party, Kai made a foolish, disappointing and hubristic exit from the company, and indeed, my life.

Now I was employed, I joined the throng of commuters each morning. Onto the M8 tram I lumbered, bundled up against the dark, winter mornings, adults sucking on cigarettes and red-cheeked children bound up brightly like decorated Christmas turkeys on their way to work and school. Most of these would get off a couple of stops in to the journey. Taking their place would be Vietnamese with chubby babies, and women dressed up with fading hair, but bright clothes and tight trousers, the smell of stale cigarette smoke wafting in with them. Along the stretching Allee der Kosmonauten, triangle, Scandinavian looking houses line the road. These are the tower blocks that loom behind them or the glorious terraced houses of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. They are something quieter and all together more humble, and a seemed a little in shock at the cars and trams rushing passed them, untouched by the spectacles that central Berlin has witnessed over the last century. Like the old village of Marzahn which we chug past, these houses are pretty but you can never forget the tower blocks that rise up and up, one after the other. The closer we get to the centre of Berlin the more recognisable the people would seem; young men wearing dark makeup and with loops in their ear, little girl punks with indigo hair and leopard print trousers. Everyone with pink noses, stamping their feet. At Springfuhl the contents of the packed tram file out and down to the S-Bahn station to pick up the S7 or S75 into Ostkreuz – where another load of commuters piles on. At Warschauerstraße the hipsters slink on wearing alpaca cardigans and self-knitted beanies, on the way to work at vegan cafés, and then other like me, working at start-ups on the canal.  

I would arrive at the office half an hour before most people started work, and begin peeling off the layers of jumpers I stretched on top of myself each morning. I would then leave half an hour early in the evenings to go to the language course. I had been adamant to carry on the course while still doing the internship. When I had told the two women at the school that I wanted to continue attending classes there in the evening, they had asked me if I could take on the task of staying on after the lessons were over and tidy each class room. This would comprise of wiping the white boards and tables down, taking out the rubbish, straightening the chairs …etc. If I did this as well, I would therefore have to do less plakateering. I agreed.

That first week, because I wanted to have at least my weekends entirely free, I decided to do an hour of plakateering after cleaning up the classrooms. This meant that the first couple of weeks of my new job I was waking up in the bitter darkness at 05:00 to practices some of my own German in the morning. I would then go on my hour commute to work, on the tram and two trains, getting to work at around 8:20. I would work through until 17:30, then rush over to Alexanderplatz to be there for the start of the lesson at 18:00. After three hours of German, forty five minutes tidying the classroom, I would start sticking posters to traffic lights at around 21:45, after just three minutes of which my fingers were red and going numb. When I couldn’t bear to do any more I would reject the option of directly embarking upon the long journey back to Marzahn, or worse yet, waiting for twenty minutes at Warschauerstraße or Ostkreuz. So to put this off I would go to the pub opposite the first hostel I had stayed in, and where I had that first pint and was cheered to live in Berlin. It made me feel good returning there, and I would go to this pub and have two pints of beer while reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and feel a little drunk relatively quickly. I would eventually head back to Marzahn and get into bed at around 01:00. I would then try and be up again at 6 the next morning in time to complete my homework from German class.

That first week, on the Thursday evening I tidied the classrooms up with a splitting headache. It only got worse on the journey home to Marzahn, and I ended up vomiting and all night and crying from the pain at the back of my head. I called in sick the next morning and lay in bed with a film playing in the background. More than a shock to the system – it is not like I had been lounging about in Berlin through September and October – I think it was the sheer hours I had been working and stress I had been feeling that brought me to this point. And then drinking when I should have been sleeping.
     I felt very much like I was running my own track, at my own speed, and that no one was running like me, or with me. Red and Smokie were both students, and so I would only occasionally bump into them in the mornings: Smokie getting ready for campus, Red making tea and returning to bed. Everyone at worked seemed to have money and ate out for lunch every day. Those who arrived early like me sauntered out at 05.30 looking ahead to a free evening, while I scuttled out and wolfing down a squashed avocado sandwich down my mouth on the way over. A lot of those at the language school were only in Berlin to learn the language it seemed, and had no job, but similarly lounged about going over vocab and language tables. Of course none of them remained at the school to tidy up.

It was a new exhausting pace which I got used to. It became a rhythm like any other, and with some adaption here and there after the first week, I was to continue it for the next three months, and not take one sick day. Wiping the tables down each evening I would think how fleisig – diligent – I was, and how everyone told me I was, and that I would reap the rewards of this at some point, and I would look back to these winter evening and say: that is how I got here, by working that hard. 


As the afternoons rushed by, so did the weeks. More nervous interns were being hired all the time and gradually I began to feel more relaxed and not quite so clueless. I was completing my tasks quicker and began to be given more exciting projects. The company employed over 100 staff and so was no longer considered a startup at four years old. However it still was part of that scene and I did become intrigued – if not yet won over - by the buzz that came from working in a modern international Kreuzberg office. 

Berlin is a burgeoning bubble of startups. Due to the cheap rent and plethora of young and international capital, Berlin waves a deriding hand at the so called ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in London, and instead hypes ‘Silicon Allee.’ Working where I did, I met many people there who had worked at other start-ups and therefore there were common colleagues everywhere, and people knew the big names of the big players, men – usually – still in their twenties and on their way to making a fortune. There is the allure to the idea of a startup: no real profit but plenty of optimism; ‘flat hierarchies’ and everyone walking around the office in flipflops and drinking a beer,

People say that in Berlin, failure is everywhere, and for a city that doesn’t look beyond the weekend, this isn’t a problem. Failure is to embrace as warmly as the next uninvited misfit that comes stumbling into the city. Perhaps failure is everywhere in Berlin, but in the circles I began moving in, it was not the the failure of a startup that I notice – a downcast shaking head and a titter of embarrassment –but the subtler, quieter failure of personal ambition; the failure of succumbing to the drag of life, even in Berlin, and the sacrifice of dreams.  
Most of these people were ones who worked for the startups that succeeded, and three years on can no longer honestly call themselves a startup. In such places, for the foot soldiers, there is little difference to working in the offices at Tescos or M&S, however cool ‘working at a startup Kreuzberg’ might sound. The pay in these companies isn’t exceptional and slowly but surely the cool bosses in flip-flops retreat behind glass doors and there is less and less free beer.

I began to meet people who were a little older than me, Brits, Aussies and Kiwis mainly (Americans in Berlin are a different thing all together) and they would have all worked in the similar companies, swapped around a bit, but always doing the same work: online marketing or customer services. Zalando – the ecommerce site in the vein of Zappos from the States – is one of these companies in which to work for was a kind of rite of passage for young expats in Berlin. Everyone had either worked there at some point or knew someone who had worked there.  But if you could stick around in jobs like these – whether be gritting your teeth, getting high as soon as you left the office, or just simply because joblessness, even in Berlin, was still too scary – the pay will rise, and in Berlin, you can quickly live comfortably.

Apart from these common, subdued types, I met one girl who was an active player in the heart of the startup scene. She had joined a two month old company as the first employee just under a year before I met her. Alongside her two colleagues, she had nursed, weaned and teethed the company through a long and dispiriting winter, until they came through to the bleating of prancing euros in spring. When I met her there were then 8 other employees and she had her own intern. She told me about how she had learnt social media marketing on the job yet would now go berserk if her boss ever took the intuitive to tweet from the company account and confuse one of their campaigns. She organised startup meet-ups in Mitte and Kreuzberg and therefore knew all about the company I worked for. But she would much rather speak about her own. She was euphoric. She told me the pay was fantastic – saying the last word in a stage whisper as if it was rude to earn so much money in Berlin; it is not rude, but perhaps a little inappropriate - and she could only imagine how high she could rise in the company as she had been their first employee. She winked and gave me info about SoundCloud’s (another start-up moved to Berlin) next move and counted lazily on one hand how many friends she had working there.

These figures I met danced around my mind, sometimes strengthening, sometimes sneering at my own life in Berlin. I could see myself neither being satisfied with a job in online marketing nor being seduced by the whirl of URLs, investors and smart apps. This girl and I were different, but I don’t know if that was because of temperament, because of the money she had saved up before she came here, or because she had fallen plop into a gaggling gang of expat Brits. She had stuck with them to such an extent that she struggled to utter one word or German. I didn’t envy her when I met her; I didn’t want the same things as she did, but she had seemed to have done it the right way. Take a chance on a startup, work hard, earn a lot of money, become a darling of the British expat scene. It was a different world to the dark commute to and from Marzahn.

I had a five month of my internship ahead of me. My German was still poor, and I was still poor. It was also starting to get seriously cold. These were my concerns. Poor cold and muddling through, I trawled from Marzahn, to the canal, to my language school in Alexanderplatz. On the tram I listened to German and tested my vocabulary; at work I kept smiling and pretending that I was more confident than I was; and on the train home in the evenings, I read, and occasionally looked at my reflection and thought – what should I make of me here in Berlin? I have never worked this hard, been this busy. What is this that I am doing? Why did I come, and what will I find? Could I not have found this in London? They weren’t pessimistic questions; not entirely so anyway. Mainly simply speculative and a little incredulous that I had so fully ground myself in to a rat race in a capital city which is known for harbouring no work ethic, and being a playground for the hedonistic. But because of that, I wasn’t part of the Rat Race. Instead, I was a rat out of the race, still running, but in circles around the guinea pig hutch. Running to stay there, running to see as much as possible, hoping that the view wasn’t so good from one of the sawdust filled corners. Pulling up the socks I was wearing on my hands, and rubbing my iPod to keep it working, I walked amongst the Plattenbau of Marzahn and thought, Jesus, if nothing else, at least I can say that I have found my own Berlin.

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

[1] Elias Canetti, The Torch in my Ear, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

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