Monday 6 October 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #22

The air was biting cold but there was still no snow. ‘Oh it will come!’ Red told me as she stirred another vat of Glühwein. ‘You wait and see!’  She refilled my mug and started badgering me again about buying a winter coat. ‘You think this is cold? Na, ja! This is nothing yet. You must buy boots, too.’

Money was tight. I was using socks for gloves and wearing three jumpers in the evening. In the end I did buy a big puffer jacket that was neither as warm nor as nice as the great Chicagan one I had a left at the first hostel. I was spared from having to buy boots when Red unearthed a couple of boxes of one of her old flatmates containing the contents of the wardrobe he had left behind. (His mysterious disappearance is a story worth telling, though, perhaps this is not the place). Within the boxes we found a pair of sturdy leather brown boots. Red asked me for only 20€, telling me they were worth 70€ but she didn’t know how to use eBay so was unlikely to get more for them anywhere else.

‘Na, ja! You are not in London anymore,’ she said, pocketing the note. ‘You are in Berlin now!’

Part of me was wishing that I was in London.

Christmas was coming. Berlin was lit up and I was listening to Christmas songs. Carols and pop-classics that both took me back to my childhood and brought into sharper focus the distance I was from it all.  It didn’t feel like Christmas. The sense of expectation that charges advent was discernible, a current of convention and habit, but it was wayward and uncertain too, and I looked ahead at what promised to be a very different Christmas. Alien, even. 

I hadn’t been able to afford the flight home. Red would be having her mother, sister and brother-in-law around to the flat for the day, and was upset when I told her I would be staying with a friend’s family in a village just outside of Oldenburg. The prospect of not returning to the UK for Christmas hadn’t fazed me at first, but as advent progressed I yearned to be with family, even if only for an evening.  The first Christmas after I left school I had aired the idea of not spending Christmas with my family but instead doing my own thing with friends. My father had sat me down and with gentle firmness told me that he would be greatly upset if I didn’t spend Christmas at his. Christmas was a time for family. That it was his step-father had said to him when he had once opted to forego home one Christmas. ‘He sat me down and told me that home is the place that you are supposed to be at Christmas, and it was an insult to my mother not to return. He gave me a right bollocking.’ He looked hard into his middle distance before returning to me and the table, and hurriedly said, ‘Not that that is what this is, of course.’  

I had resentfully consented then. When the day came around I was happy enough to be there and it was as lovely and uninspiring as always.  

Talking to my father from Berlin, he seemed pretty relaxed that I wouldn’t be coming home this year. ‘A German Christmas! How much fun. You will have a great time!’ Funnily enough, his first Christmas away from home had been spent in Germany, when he roughly the same age that I now was. ‘People club together at Christmas,’ he said. ‘And a different family is made for the day.’

I had spoken to my sister on skype that week. She asked me again how long I was staying in Berlin. I had been taken aback, as I often was when people asked me that question. What had maybe seemed like a trip, an Autumn Adventure when I left had slowly solidified into just life. And the question sounded to me as odd as it would if was to ask her: So, when are leaving London?  

I spoke to my other sister, for who Christmas was still the best thing. That evening she was going with my dad to a village carol service. I knew which one. We had been there a few times together and even once been to the Christmas Day service there. I had always enjoyed carol services. Especially the one at school which marked the end of term. There would be mulled wine and mince pies afterwards, and the parents would have coffee, and we would run about, collecting our things and revelling in our liberty. On that evening, at least, everyone was in a good mood and generous of spirit.  

I remember once my father and I going to a carol service together at my sister’s school when I was still quite young. Both of us were smart as a carrot and though he was jolly, going in and shaking hands with contemporaries of his, he would turn stern and sombre when the first regal chords of the service began. He would sparkle again when it was over and we would hang around the coffee and biscuits while waiting for my sister; slurping, munching, laughing.

Christmas at university was different again, turning childhood pleasures into revelry. We would get a lot of alcohol in and wear stupid hats, everyone cooking their own speciality from home, and then sit around listening to The Darkness’ Christmas Bells and Coldplay’s Christmas Lights. I remember after one party we had, one last cigarette before bed ended up with me staying up another three hours, collapsed on the sofa and finishing of the red wine, and then when that was done, the Baileys. I slouched there chain smoking and watching Christmas YouTube videos: scenes from Love Actually, Abba with a snowman, Another Blooomin’ Christmas … Returning South on the train the next day I didn’t feel so fresh. I listened to Ttchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, looking out the window and waited for the snow to fall.


I had looked forward to December in Berlin since I had arrived and it didn’t disappoint. Streets such as the Ku’Damm and Unter dem Lindem were lit up with white fairy lights and streamers, and crystal lights sat frosted about the gnarled arms of the trees. On most streets in the city, somewhere steam would be billowing out from a wooden hut or kiosk offering honey glassed nut clusters and sticky cinnamon buns. Children were excited, naturally, and the streets in general buzzed in celebration of the glowing nugget of warmth that is nestled in the bleak Berlin winter.  

Though not one fairy light lit up the office at work there was a Christmas party fit with a Curry Wurst fountain and open bar. Someone also brought some cigars, and as I sat huddled with my new colleagues on a terrace looking over the Spree, a large glass of red wine in one hand and a cigar in the other, I chuckled to myself, puffing away, and thought, if I am lucky enough to enjoy luxuries such as nights like this, then I really shouldn’t complain about a meagre salary and wearing socks for gloves.

(Having said that, my dearth of socks was becoming a problem. I don’t know whether it is because of the shape of my feet, the chemical compound of their sweat, or the way in which I walk, but socks rarely survive a month in my care before becoming terminally poxed in holes. One day after work, my feet still damp from the morning commute, I couldn’t take it anymore and rushed into a department store at Alex to buy some socks. I was late for my language course and in a flurry when I was unable to find men’s socks anywhere across the three floors. I eventually found a pile of children’s socks and seeing that those were recommended for 2 – 5 years olds looked bigger than my rugby ones at school I flung them on the counter and rapidly paid for them. I thought nothing of the queer, smirking look the young girl at the till gave me until I went to put my new purchases on the next day and found them not to be socks at all but little winter tights. I have no problem remembering the word Stumpenhusen now.)

The language school had gone all out for Christmas with holy and tinsel arching over each door and looping down the corridor. Glen would come into our lessons with a selection of Santa hats for us to where while she took pictures and we smiled enchanting ‘Frohe Weihnachten!’ The dog Maya had been fitted with a bell and Santa hat too and could be heard jingling up and down the corridor throughout the lessons.

I walked through the tacky and plastic Weihnachtenmarkt at Alexanderpaltz each day to get to the language school. One evening, I decided to put off class and explore the market. I had been told to avoid this one as it was the most overpriced and commercial market to be found in Berlin (Alex also hosts a particularly gaudy Oktoberfest in the autumn, amongst the other delights that are to be found there throughout the year.) In all its glitter and tack however, the market charmed me nonetheless. I bought a steaming mug of mulled cider (I balked at the cost of the Glühwein) and wandered contentedly through the stalls, passing a little ice rink that had been set up the centre. I contemplated buying a warm scarf for 10€, decided against it and moved on, instead settling at a large, circular wooden table with eight or nine stools placed about it.

I was soon joined by a scruffy looking German with thinning hair and a ratty, scraggly beard.  He began speaking to me in German. I replied as best I could, and was joyed when I discerned no surprise or anxiety in his eyes when he heard me speak – a look I had come to expect at the moment a native first heard my German after expecting me to be a compatriot. Indeed, piecing together my stuttering grammar, this continued to speak to me in German, though a little slower and a little louder, as naturally as if there was a rollocking going on about me that impeded my comprehension, and nothing more. He spoke fluently and rambunctiously about life in Berlin, and the Christmases he had spent living as a child in Marzahn (of all places!) To my surprise I found myself not only being able to understand what he was saying, but also able to articulate the questions and remarks that naturally came in to my head. So buoyed was I with my first proper German conversation that when he  offered me one of his cigarettes I took it eagerly, casting a side my previous rules to avoid smoking before 7PM, and toasted the occasion with a triumphant billow of smoke up into the night.

This man was jolly, with droopy eyes, and talked to me in a way that made me feel that he viewed him and I to be off the same stock, with the same outlook on life, and could take the same simple pleasure in drinking mulled cider alone at a tacky Christmas Market. I was happy to be of that stock that night. 

I arrived at the class over an hour after the lesson had begun, as had happened a few times before when I had stayed at the office late. Speaking German to a real live German while drinking mulled cider was a better way to spend an hour than either in the office or in German class. Walking down the corridor I saw Glen’s face poke out of the kitchen door, looking a little harassed and ashen, strands of her white blonder hair hanging limply over her brow. Indeed, her whole demeanour was in stark contrast to my merry and rosy humour.

‘Oh Bertie, it is only you. In! In! Come!’ and she gestured for me to join her in the kitchen – which was the size of a small lada – and closed the door. When it was shut she said:

‘Did a Spanish girl come up with you?’

‘A Spanish girl?’

‘Yes. A Spanish girl. Have you see one?’

‘No. Why?’

‘A Spanish girl is coming to speak to me. I cannot see her again.’

I asked what the Spanish girl wanted.

‘A refund!’ she spat out. ‘Naturally! Demanding a refund because she now can’t make the lessons. Alzo! Where are we to find the people to replaces her half way through the month. We won’t, I tell her! How would we do that?’

She glared at me and for one moment I thought that she was actually looking for me to provide her with a solution.

‘She is on her way here now. Again!’

I tried to make the sounds of appropriate sympathy and indignation. ‘I should be gone by now but we were having my grandmothers Kuchen in Room 2.’ I now saw on the side next to us next to the sink were the chunky remains of what looked like a banana and walnut cake next to a jug of Glühwein.

The sound of bells was now heard coming faintly down the corridor. Glen took a sudden intake of breath. She whipped the door open, leaned out and was back in with the door shut in under a second. Held by the scruff of her neck was the fluffy Maya, hatted and belled and seemingly too startled even to yap. Glen dropped her on the floor.

‘She will know I am here if she sees Maya. Have some cake!’

She said the last in the same frantic tone as the rest that permitted no argument. I wanted some cake anyway and so took my coat off and sat my bag down on the floor.

‘I have eaten too much already’, Glen said.

She got a fork for me and I began digging way at the last three chunky slices. She absentmindedly picked up a fork herself and began transporting gloops of creamy banana into her mouth, a doleful expression hanging in her face as she ravaged through one of the slices.  We ate in silence and I waited for her to let me know how long we were to stay in there. When a knock suddenly rapped on the door behind her followed by the turn of its handle and its creaking opening all three of us jumped. In a moment of hysteria Glen sprung in front of the door and slammed it shut again, the third slice of cake falling to the floor.  A startled cry was heard from the other side and then more knocking at the door. With cream smeared over her scarlet lips Glen pushed her back against the door, her arms spread wide about it and her feet anchoring themselves where the walls met the floor. ‘Occupied!’ she screeched releasing a few pieces of banana from her mouth. This was too much for Maya who now began barking excitedly. She eventually noticed the cake and went quite eating that, and soon the knocking stopped too.

Then, as if nothing had happened at all, Glen poured us both some Glühwein and we remained in the kitchen bit longer finishing the cake, Glen and her dog with twin smears of cream around their mouth. Neither of us mentioned my class going on next door. This was definitely better than class.

The Weihnachtmarkt at Richardplatz was as sweet and delicate as the one at Alex was gawdy and brass. This was the beautiful part of Neukölln, and I was always thrilled to go there. There I went with my German friend who I was to be spending Christmas with, her sister and a third girl. All of them bundled up, and blonde. In particular, it had imagine going to a market with these girls that had me so excited for Berlin in December, and so I was very content as we wandered through the crowds, sipping on cinnamon mulled wine and glazed nuts.
Joy and festive cheer came from our kitchen at the flat in the form of copious amounts of Glühwein and a small Christmas tree decked in purple tinsel that Red had brought and was constantly being knocked ever by Milla as she gnawed at its little trunk. Red would play German carols and the flat began to feel very snug. Red wanted to have a large Christmas party in the flat. After my last day of work before Christmas she texted me on the way home asking me to bring provisions for the night.  I have a pathetic anxiety about supermarkets and dreaded anyone, let someone as demanding and picky as Red, to shop there for them.

Thankfully the Rewe in Marzahn was usually quiet. I was wearing my big new puffa jacket and despite the cold outside was now sweating as I turned up and down the aisles in search of Thai salad, looking like a fat, synthetic goose. I was despairing, and considering hanging it all when the music began again. It had felt like an instant of Christmas each time it had played in November though I wasn't sure it was supposed to be festive. All jingles jingle, after all … It certainly wasn’t the song I had thought it was at first and my stomach twisted in new surprise each time this became apparent. The jingle was jaunty, and whistled and sounded just like a Christmas song ought to sound. But I didn’t know it.

I stood in front of a shelf of bottles trying to find Red’s drink of choice and grabbed one calling itself 'cherry likor’. Was that the same as liquor? It also had the word syrup, lower down on the label, in big letters. On the shelf below there was a darker, more expensive bottle called 'Sour Cherry'. I didn’t think that would go down well. Her phone was almost out of battery. I didn't dare another call. I had already made a fool of herself with the frozen vegetables a week before. I read her message again to check I hadn’t forgotten anything and heaved the basket up towards the counter. I rarely got these shopping trips completely right, but somehow whatever I brought back would be enough for her to make some kind of feast out of.

My first step out of Rewe fell into an icy puddle and I froze where I stood as the cold crept around my ankle, through two pairs of socks, some child’s tights and a sandwich bag. I walked on, slowly, swearing as her toes accustomed themselves to the cold. The Christmas lights crowning the heads of the tower blocks ahead of me were a throbbing, nauseous green. They pieced through the fog, above the other twinkling multi-coloured and dancing decorations that shone on the windows.

I was coming up to a stall that had been erected the previous week. It was steaming and I could smell chocolate and nuts. A woman, tall and tightly wrapped up, was standing at the counter speaking to the man inside who tied something up for her in parcels. Around her legs wobbled two little children, the same size and in identical ivy green snow suits, making them look like little aliens, or giant gherkins that had sprouted limbs. One toppled over, unnoticed, as I approached them.

I was only a few feet away when a little dog sprung out from behind the legs of the woman, and hopping around the struggling child on the floor began growling and snapping at her. It was on a lead which was a neon-red, like its collar and shining in the night. The woman turned to her with a blank, questioning expression, and from her hands the red lead seemed to extend indefinitely as the dog came closer to her, snarling from its scrawny throat. I stumbled back guiltily from the family, and the shed, and the smell of chocolate and nuts, and hurried on towards the green lights, fearful that they would engage me in conversation.

Back at the flat there was no party. Just Red and one of her guys. Smokie had flown back to France earlier that week. There was an array of brightly parcelled chocolates sprawled across the table amongst wrapping paper and a wide assortment of gifts for her family and friends. Red sat me down next to her and went through each one, as the guy looked wearily on. Later someone had the idea to put on The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I hadn’t seen this film since I was very young, and had wanted to watch it again ever since. The memories I had of the film were vivid. We were with my parent at some Christmas drinks party, or dinner, and the children had spent the evening upstairs playing hide and seek. When a dispute broke out the games screeched to a halt and someone put on the film. I remember my sisters voicing their concerns that I was too young to watch it. That naturally fired up my eagerness. What kind of cartoon Christmas film could I be too young to watch?  
With the skeletal and monstrous figures, and their twitching insect-movements, droning anti-Disney songs, the whole village created by Tim Burton awed me with a sense of danger and lust. Could things really be this different, this dark, this alien at Christmas? Could something as familiar, as safe, and comfortably as Christmas, have such a sordid underbelly, glazed with apprehension, uncertainty, and fantasy?
Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

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