A year of adventures in Berlin — from dates to public transportation snafus
On my way to see a lover, I must walk past the fenced-in Christmas tree business near the Landsberger Allee S-Bahn station. It covers almost a square kilometer with over one hundred pine trees on display, pointing towards the overcast skies. What looks like one thousand more are stacked neatly in their plastic sheaths, like missiles in a depot. Waiting to be deployed to a family for Christmas in this city of angels. These same trees discarded like last month’s Tinder hookup will be piled high on the streets until — eventually — sometime in late February when all but a few stubborn needles have long since given up, they will be hauled away to some organic waste recycling plant. Germans handle their trash very well. This romance won’t last even as long as these Christmas trees.
When the construction on the additional floor of my apartment building took a serious turn and actual chainsaws were waking me up at 7am, I was forced to seek a work refuge. The heavy machinery and tumbling beams above were making the chandelier swing from side to side above my desk, gently reminding me of the impermanence of life. My captains’ quarters no longer inhabitable, and cogency beaten out of me by the grinding of the saws, the thumping and cracking and heaving above my head the final straw was when, literally, a hole was punched through my flatmate’s ceiling from above, revealing straw. There was a layer of straw used as insulation in this 110-year-old house…this Berlin Altbau. But it was the very last straw for me; I broke down and paid for access to a well-known co-working space. The hot-desks in the main area are right below speakers blaring out pop music.
I retreat to the quiet ‘hot-desk’ area, which is located on the way to a conference room and lined with white phone booths claiming to be soundproof. I have traded chainsaws for slamming doors and Very-Important-Sounding phone calls. My fellow coworkers seem to want to meet one another and look for ways of starting conversations, which is tricky when you’re all wearing headphones. Many of the coffee-breaks are really excuses to take off headphones and bump into other people around the hi-tech water cooler.
In airports the last few years I’ve noticed the arrival of white cubes you can rent by the minute for a nap and a break. What costs a premium these days? Quiet. Peace and quiet. Not having a screen blaring, or silently flickering on every wall. No chainsaws near your head.
Seelsorge am Bahnsteig: Yellow vests appear from the dark. The man speaks with a strong Berlin-Turkish accent. Warm. Caring. Pastoral.
“If you drink so much it’s no wonder your legs hurt — it messes with your veins.”
He’s kneeling over the figure now. A man in his mid-40s, lying on his back with his legs at a bad angle. There, on the platform under the stars, inches from the train ledge with his backpack and sleeping bag splayed around his head is this poor, broken man. Meanwhile, his other white shopping bags form a snow angel around him on this cold, bristling February night.
“If you don’t love yourself, who will?” asks the man in the yellow vest.
My throat catches.
The gypsies are feeding their children Snickers and Coke Cola in the metro. The traditional, pink, flowery scarves covering half their round, dark heads and their dangly golden earrings add color to Berlin’s dreary winters and slow springs. I could learn a lot from these women. Roma is what they are called now. They don’t give a flying hoot about what anyone outside of their clan thinks. With their five-inch slip-on wedge heels with chartreuse socks, long velvet-red skirts, huge fuzzy white tops with thousands of glittery tassels, and rhinestones under contrasting vests. They say that in Berlin you can wear anything — or nothing.
Talking loudly amongst themselves in their language, as if they owned the metro; it’s as if these Roma are willing everyone around them to take a stance. I wish I could understand what they are saying, wish I could be so confident. Germans are not often loud; that is reserved for very few things in this culture, like Fussball. Otherwise, keep your voices down, nobody wants a scene. But I am not German. There is a fine line between wall-flower pushover and over-the-top obnoxious. Americans are certainly known for being loud. I shrink away when I hear them — possible from a mile away — as they go touristing in my adoptive city. Maybe I can find that fine line and walk it in five-inch heels.
I’m on the Ringbahn again from Wedding towards Gesundbrunnen, stuffed in with only a few inches between passengers. Ruhe Bewahren advises a sticker next to the door near me. Stay Calm in case of emergency. Two Afghan men rush up at the last minute and squeeze in just as the doors close. But one of them has got his hand caught in the door. As the train leaves the station, he tries desperately to pull it out. But his knuckles — perhaps swollen from years of war and work — are too large and the end of his fingers are stuck.
There is an unspoken community that forms out of the passengers every time you enter a metro car. People eyeing each other while they multitask, listening to their music but maintaining situational awareness. Something might happen. Something just like this.
The people closest to the door try to help pull it open to no avail. We discuss the situation and the consequences of pulling the E-brake versus the emergency door release. Clearly, none of us has ever pulled either. Of course, no one wants to cause a scene, least of all me, also an Ausländer — a foreigner. I am standing two people away and hear the man with the hand dilemma speaking to his companion in Dari. Someone in our car-community says that once we get to the station the door will open.
But when we arrive at Gesundbrunnen, the door opens on the other side. If this is going to cause injury, our window of opportunity to act is going to be as closed as this problematic door. I ask the man, “Khayli bad’eh? Is it bad? Khayli dard mikonay? Does it hurt really bad?” in Farsi. He nods saying, “Baleh” and I say decisively, “Then pull the emergency door opener.” Gesturing to him to pull down on the lever on the wall. His friend pulls and he is free, and they exit the car thanking us in a hurry.
The train is getting ready to leave the station, but we all know it won’t be so easy. The door on the wrong side is still open. The conductor comes down the platform, looking into each car. The crowd parts and we explain that what happened, but he seems surprisingly uninterested in the cause. He goes to work, but the door, after being forcibly opened is now in no mood to play along. As the conductor starts opening the overhead panel to get at the motor, I see that it’s going to take a while. I need to go. My job of emphasizing the value of human life over a machine is done.
The two men are sitting on a bench on the platform, relieved. They probably needed to get somewhere too, but reentering that car was out of the question. I check in on the aftermath, but nothing is broken. They thank me again profusely in an overabundance of Central Asian politeness, and I say, “Hey, it’s just a train. Mohem nist — it’s not important.” As I walk past the train full of commuters, tourists, and Berliners I know that I am one of the few people who knows why this train, carrying at least 500 people, is delayed. And this delay will affect thousands of others across the city. A secret smile spreads across my face and I hurry down the stairs towards the metro — a faster connection.
I’m returning from abroad. I’ve been awake for 24 hours. Delirious, I hail a taxi to take me home. Every so often, I take a taxi in Berlin. Ein Taxi nehmen. That’s already a Germanism, we used to call it ‘hailing a cab’ back in New York. Without fail, my drivers are men of either Turkish origin or Caucasian Germans. 85% of the time, they are Turkish. That’s not entirely true: I did have one female and one Persian driver, respectively. She was the exception that proved the rule, and he gave me his business card after I practiced a few words in Farsi on him.
If I’m using a taxi app, I can see my driver’s names listed in their profiles, Mehmet, Oktay, Tugrul, Mustafa. I like to chat with them, using the fact that I am a non-German to elicit their nationality for my own game of ‘guess that country.’ The conversation is usually easy to start, and they are eager to talk. Only in one case was the driver sullen and unfriendly; another exception to the rule.
Coming back from the airport on this occasion, by the time we have covered the basics and established that he is married with kids and I am not, my driver Hasan asks me whether I am open to meeting a single friend of his. Half of me is still floating over the Atlantic so what has arrived decides, why not? There’s a part of me that is always open for ‘a sign from the universe.’ Like the old joke where the guy prays every day to God to let him win the lottery, and eventually he hears a booming voice, “Meet me halfway, buy a ticket!” I see these encounters similarly. I am buying a ticket to the show of humanity. Let’s see what happens.
“I’ll call him right now,” my driver says, adding details about what a great catch his friend would be. He Whatsapps Tuncay — my potential suitor — and as we hurtle through Berlin’s streets my driver holds up the phone for me to meet a man who turns out to speak neither English nor German. Tuncay is certainly handsome, what little of him I can see on the small phone screen. It’s his perfectly sculpted eyebrows that stand out. I’m counting on the poor lighting to hide my limp jet-setting hairdo.
He has escaped from the political turmoil and persecution in Turkey and is living somewhere else in Germany. At least that’s what my driver tells me. We chat a few more times using Google translate the following week, but neither of us has the time to learn yet another language. Even for the possibility of love.
God, I love this city. But some days in Berlin, the cigarette butts, graffiti on every surface, the spitting, the smell of it all…just makes me want to retire to the countryside far from any other person. Other days, my heart is so bursting open with joy and love for my fellow humankind that I’m like a walking wound, with no skin — my heart open to everyone I meet.
As I walk past the African “Safari Imbiss” on Müllerstraße — where I’ve yet to see a single African customer — I just can’t keep the goofy grin from spreading over my face. Jesus is Lord graces the sign above the takeaway, and the Falafel sandwich with peanut sauce and fried bananas are indeed, heavenly.
The resident drunks on my metro stop lost one of their crew last winter when candles, flowers, and a sign in Polish appeared on the platform to mark the passing of a 46-year-old man named Jan. They would sit drinking on the metal benches at the station next to the newspaper stand. The panhandlers haunt the underground, some busk while others beg directly. Each has a story to tell, and as they come through you might hear, “Greetings ladies and gentlemen, I am homeless. I am selling newspapers. Sorry to bother you, brother, can you spare a dime?”
There is one very young man who I see frequently during the day near my stop. Facedown on the pavement with his open hands next to a sign asking for vegan food. There is another older man who has no hands. He sits in the evenings by the ticket machine, arms outstretched.
If I gave every single one a Euro every time they asked, I would indeed go broke pretty quickly. What I then considered was just giving out hugs. A renewable resource, those hugs after-all. The urge arose deep within me to embrace them like the Green Mile guy. You know those people who hold up ‘Free Hugs’ signs…? I decided against hugs. Later, after reading about how to deal with panhandlers by acknowledging their humanity and dignity and looking them in the eye, I had mostly positive results with this approach. Except in a few cases where one woman shouted me down, calling me a liar when I answered “Sorry, no” to her question of whether I had a few cents to spare. Some white lies are darker underground.
On my way to the lake, I walk past the graveyard. A fence separates the world of the deceased from this side where people are sunbathing naked and throwing frisbees and tossing balls to their dogs. A middle-aged man sits forlornly on a camping chair in front of a grave, the name Fischer on the headstone. He is peering through the fence into my world — the world of the living — his forlorn face nonetheless expressing hope and sad yearning.
I overhear a conversation between two gentlemen sitting on the stone wall that forms the northern shore of Plötzensee. One is very drunk, the other slightly so.
“The world is fucked. Politics… and all the problems with the rainforests…global warming, veganism. You know? You know?” He keeps saying.
“Brazil is burning and the airport debacle, this world would be better off without any people.”
I go for another walk in the park and hear music in the distance. Following the path, I come upon a man DJ-ing some funky, easygoing beats. He has his headphones on and his equipment on a stone wall overlooking the lake. Sitting down opposite on a park bench I roll a cigarette and sit back; this is the life. After a while, he begins to pack up his gear and I ask him where he plays when he’s not rehearsing here. He gives me a card for his next gig, and his band’s name is Junction to Humanity.
Grabbing a bag of rosemary and sea-salt potato chips along with my Becks Blue or Jever Fun, my Syrian Späti guys still ask me every time, “Do you know this is a non-alcoholic beer?” Yes, I know. I head for the door wishing them a good night. It has been seven years since my last birthday drink.
I bicycle to the art museum in the bunker. On the way, I take a wrong turn and must cycle back along the canal, and then turn onto a ‘Gehstieg,’ — the pedestrian pavement. A crusty, old German man loudly mutters at me, “Didn’t you learn how to ride a bike?”
“Actually, no.” I counter. I decide to take the humble approach.
“I’m a foreigner. Please tell me what the rules are.”
He does; more kindly than either of us expected.
Arriving at the bunker out of breath and sweaty, my hair matted to my head, a mark along my forehead from my helmet screams “proletariat!” This bunker is not for the masses, as I had to reserve my spot for the guided tour costing 18 Euros several days in advance.
Before entering the exhibit, we are instructed to stand in a darkened antechamber, music playing to set the tone and hush our senses, and it turns out, our egos too. Our young, female guide first tells us to feel free to ask any questions, then demurs when asked about the exhibit that has zero information about each piece. She finally admits that the collection of furniture, statues, art prints, and more assorted pieces range from 700 BC to 1300 AD and is from various ancient Cambodian and Chinese empires.
The guide sees me struggling with the heavy, pretentious, and willfully ignorant atmosphere and, exasperated, throws me a scrap of information. Here is the many-handed Hindu god Vishnu and a tiny Buddha on a head of multiple statues of heads, and there is a big Buddha under a lotus petal — recognizable by its 7-leaf nodes. She lets on that she is an advanced art student herself, and insists the pieces are here merely for their aesthetic value, divorced from religious meaning. I observe that almost all the items are of religious significance to someone in the world, but she says the owner of this collection intends it to just be appreciated for its beauty and purposely does not provide any context or knowledge. Annoyed at my lack of respect for this set-up, I wonder if she is aware of the joke being played on her: she was selected for this prestigious job because she knows a lot about art history, but is not allowed to talk about it in this position. Her silence is deafening to both of us.
The religious pieces are interspersed with erotic photography by the famous Japanese photographer Araki, but I am not supposed to know this — as they are not labeled; asking another question would elicit further derision and frustration from this woman who is living evidence of what happens if you work in a bunker underground without sunlight for three years straight. A robot could guide us through the exhibit, if it were merely to make sure we don’t come too close to this decapitated stone head, or that ornate Khmer dynasty sculpture or piece of stone which, for all I know, could’ve been made yesterday. Is it ‘just’ beautiful? Really?
“The venue is amazing, what a privilege, can’t wait to go!” gush the breathless Google reviews.
In another room, there is an Asian chair and a photo of a woman’s legs spread wide by hands above. Another photo of a mussel that looks like a vagina and then an apple cut to look like buttocks is displayed on a small stand. They are indeed beautiful.
What is the purpose of art if not to have an audience? Should it not be shared with the world to inform, educate and enlighten? If not for the edification of us hoi poloi, us ignoramuses, it is just another elitist commodification; in this case Berlin-style. Like selfies in front of Berghain on Instagram.
Sitting in the U6 metro coming home from the club at three in the morning there is an empty beer bottle on the floor. It rolls across the car from one corner to another as the train navigates each curve. Whaaaaaappmpt. Badadadadadada…. Whack! Nobody wants to take the risk of touching it. No one will go out of their way to be responsible for something at this hour. I don’t want to be bothered either. No worries, the bottle-collectors will come around for the 5-cent deposit soon enough.
Berlin is the city not just of angels, but ghosts. This city is covered in both the proverbial and real layers of history. Ghosts roam the streets, and not just the big, Nazi-era and Cold-War ghosts, but the smaller specters of our lives.
I went to meet a new freelancer friend in a cafe in Kreuzberg. Just as I arrived, she messaged that she just realized there was a cafe with the same name in Mitte, which is where she was… I rushed back to the metro and met her at the proper place, 30 minutes late. We ordered our oat-milk lattes and caught up on our career plans. She gave me a book about the history of Berlin’s churches. Then she ghosted me after an email miscommunication. I will always think of her when I pass that cafe, that neighborhood. It’s not just Tinder dates that end in ghosting here.
I love exploring the past in Berlin. It is unavoidable here with the Stolpersteine, the stumbling stones marking the houses where victims of the Nazi era used to live underfoot on every block; but as I do, I create my own. A Tinder date on Teufelsberg is all happy selfies in the sun, turning into a few hot nights and my earrings left behind in an apartment in Charlottenburg. My messages go unanswered. I will never see him, or them, again. I think of both when I pass his metro stop. Maybe the earrings will turn up in the Sunday Mauer Park Flea market someday?
How long does it take for a layer of history to fade? Until all the people are dead? Nothing ever does fade away completely. It just gets added to the layers of humanity.
Essay originally published in Berlin Stadtsprachen Magazin Issue 14 2020