Snapshots of a Weekend in Berlin

Berlin is like one of those postcard strips which fold out to reveal a dozen snapshots. No matter how much exploring you have already done, each time you turn an unfamiliar corner, a little square, or a park or church will pop out at you. Here are some snapshots of my weekend, as I think back over it, wrapped in a blanket, with the cat at my feet, rolling a bouncy ball over the floor.

Friday night, 4.30 am Burger King, Friedrischshain

I am remarkably unaffected by the five shots of Kräuter Schnapps, one Amaretto and apple cocktail, and two bottles of beer I’ve consumed. But still, there’s nothing like a greasy bag of onion rings and packet of chips given the circumstances. The lady behind the counter has grey hair and steely eyes and a face full of resignation. I immediately feel guilty for being somebody that makes it worthwhile to keep Burger King open at this hour. I am exceptionally polite when I order. Behind me, two homeless men, with colourful floppy hair and both on crutches, are slurring their words as they address her co-worker, a stylish man with black eyes.

“Why don’t you point at the meal you want?”, he suggests, as if this is a standard cure for those who can’t articulate. The men look at the pictures of slimy bacon double cheese burgers and chicken nuggets and make a selection. “Would you like a drink with that?” the sever asks.

They can’t think of a response for this one. Suddenly I feel something against my leg. One of the men has started to prod me with his crutch. I jump to safety. His companion defends me:“Hey man, don’t do that, she’s a girl. Stop..”
As I am eating my onion rings, one of the men collapses. His burger flies to the ground. The cheese soaks into the dirty grey tiles.

Friedrichshain Park, Saturday, 3 pm

There are two enormous concrete elephants in the park. A little blonde girl is colouring them in with chalk. She’s not wearing any shoes, and her socks are pink. She’s totally engrossed in her task. She paints the elephant’s trunk green.

On the far side of the green, heart-shaped balloons tied to trees are dancing in a light breeze. A group of twenty-somethings are having a party. They’ve set up a little barbecue and are serving sausages and potato salad on paper plates. Suddenly they all put down their plastic forks to sing Happy Birthday to their friend.

A young man with a black pony tail and tired eyes is sitting on a bench, bent over his Border Collie, caressing it slowly, with a large brush. The collie stands patiently, looking straight ahead, bending its knees when required and responding instantly to the man’s gruff “Setzen.” There is tremendous dignity in the collie’s profile. It looks as though he is smiling politely, as large tufts of his black and white fur fall to meet the dusty ground. After several minutes, the man puts the brush away. The collie lifts his head to look into his owner’s face, with deference and expectation. “Na, geh,”the man with the tail concedes, and the collie, still for so long, now bounds away. He meets a Labrador on the way and they sniff each other’s bottoms.

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Sunday, 5 pm The Topography of Terror

Today, exploring the area around Check Point Charlie, I landed at a stretch of the original Berlin wall. A little sign revealed that this was the “Topography of Terror.” There was a visitor’s centre at the site. I went in. And I saw pictures of Jews being paraded round their hometowns wearing signs with words designed to humiliate them. And documents authorising handicapped children to be used for medical experiments. And I listened in to a guide, who was telling a school class about the big companies that had donated money to Hitler during the war.

Suddenly an old man, who had also been listening in, blurted out “I’m not responsible for what my father or grandfather did.”

The teenagers turned their heads.

“I’m innocent! It’s not my fault. I don’t even know if my father or grandfather did anything bad.”

“We’re not talking about blame,” said the tour guide, a curly-haired polyglot, whose first language was not German.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” the old man repeated, in an accent I now recognize as Berlin, and which most people suppress, because they think it “undesirable.”

“Maybe we can talk about this later,” said the guide. The man stopped talking. The guide finished his tour and told the teenagers never to stop asking questions in order to find out the truth.

As the schoolboys trotted away, the guide approached the old man and shook his hand.
“I’m sorry,” said the old man.
“Don’t worry,” said the guide.
“I’m innocent,” said the old man, his face folded with guilt.

The Forbidden Fruit: Why Paul Begley Won’t Go To Hell

Paul Begley is 46, Irish and until recently, had a good job. He travelled around the world, packing fruit and vegetables into big crates. Then he shipped them to Ireland and sold them to supermarkets. If you wanted a good gherkin or an organic asparagus, he was your man. It wasn’t glamorous work but it paid the bills easily and allowed him to take on a few people. He donated money to children’s charities and liked getting involved in awareness campaigns like “Kids in Action.” Now he’s going to prison, because he pretended that his bulbs of garlic were apples. He’s going to stay there for six years, just in case anybody else gets the idea to mislabel their garlic.

The tone might be facetious but the facts stand: As Judge Nolan said as he was sentencing him, Paul Begley was a “decent man.” He was probably about as honest as the next person.

It’ll cost the Irish taxpayer around half a million euro to keep him in prison. For every bit of money you earn, a little portion of it will go towards keeping Paul Begley in his cell. If, as is likely, he gets depressed you might also end up contributing to the salary of a prison psychologist.

As he said himself, what Paul Begley did was wrong. He shouldn’t have put “apple” labels on boxes of garlic. He shouldn’t have avoided paying tax, because no matter how inordinately high the tax on garlic, as opposed to say its cousin, the onion, Paul Begley was not in a position to take the law into his own hands.

He admitted it. He helped the police with their inquiry. He agreed a mode of repayment. And still, he was sentenced to six years in prison. The harsh sentence made headlines around the world.

Prison is for people who are a threat to society when free. It is a practical, rather than moral solution to society’s problems. In reality it is neither about revenge nor rehabilitation. It is a preventative strategy, and nothing more.

The chances of Paul Begley reoffending are very slim. For one, he’s bankrupt. He has €1.6 million to pay back, probably with hefty interest. He’s been humiliated. There’s not a supplier in Ireland that doesn’t know his name. At 46, he’ll probably call it a day and retire to a modest orchard somewhere, where he will consider his crime, live a quiet life and try to make ends meet.

He is not a danger to society.

The following scenario is analogous to Paul Begley’s crime. Think about it and ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how serious the offense.

Imagine you’re in your local supermarket doing the weekly shopping. You pick up a few loose onions and pop them into a bag. Then you grab a couple of garlic bulbs and put them in another. You plop the bag with the onions onto a weighing scales and press the picture with the onions on it. You collect the little label with the price and stick it to the bag. Then you do the same with the garlic, except this time, the price is 25 times as high.

“Eh, what?” you think. “That’s ridiculous! You look at your bags again. Feeling a little bit uneasy, you scrunch up the sticker you printed out for the garlic. You put the bag back down on the weighing scales, and pause. You feel a little uncomfortable, but you think “ah, sure feck it.”

This time, you press the picture of the onion. You pick up the sticker, which shows an amount 25 times less than the previous one and attach it to the bag. Sure onions are just obese garlics, you think as you make your way to the till, where the sales assistant scans the two bags through without a second glance.

Paul Begley has already lost his reputation. Putting him behind bars means that the tax payer loses out too.
As for the argument that the purpose of the ruling is to deter others from committing the same crime, perhaps we should consider first of all, why the authorities find it so difficult to keep track of customs fraud, and second, why the tax on Chinese garlic is up to 232 % while that on onions is 9%.

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“Thanks for the bailout”: Irish Celebrate in Berlin

“Thanks for the bailout,” cried a girl in a leprechaun hat, holding a placard featuring Jedward.
“Careful now,” yelled a boy at her, tooting his plastic horn. Ahead, the Berlin pipe band continued its drone and children dressed in Viking hats danced a jig.

It’s 4 pm in Goerlitzer Park in Kreuzberg, a district in west Berlin. The Irish “parade” is making a haphazard round of the park. “St Patrick,” tall, thin with a long brown beard and a wooden cane is in front. A paper dragon is floating beside him, held up by three girls in green felt, dressed as shamrocks.

I joined in just as the gathering entered the park. There were a few hundred Irish at least, bottles of Weissbier in one hand, and mini tricolours in the other.

Jedward featured in the parade.

Thick country accents initiated a rendition of “The Fields of Athenry,” which rippled a few rows up before it gave way to traditional songs I had never heard before.

I had no idea that there were so many Irish in Berlin. I was hoping for a similar-minded awkward loner, with which I could strike up a friendship. But it wasn’t to be. The people were already tipsy, and, dressed in leprechaun hats, moving only in large groups.

I found myself behind the Irish ambassador to Germany. Actually, when I come to think of it, thats’s just who I think he was. But, if circumstantial evidence stands, he was the only man in a suit and green tie with a well-groomed wife in an emerald outfit by his side.

Irish and Germans celebrate in Goerlitzer Park

Despite being lonesome on such a day of festivities, I went into a bar decorated with green paper shamrocks. I asked for a Berliner Weiss but they said “nicht hetute.” So I got a Guinness, for the day that was in it. It cost twice as much as the other beers, and tasted foul.

It came in a plastic cup, which I took back to Goerlitzer park.

I sat on top of a hill and watched the people around me.

Next to me was a group of six teenage boys. They were taking drugs of some sort. At one point two of them put their faces together, cupping each other’s mouths as if they were going to kiss in secret. They stayed like that for a few seconds and after, the blonde boy’s face broke into a gloriously pure smile, like that of an infant: ecstasy.

Berlin pipe band lift spirits

Lower down the hill, a couple was playing chess on a magnetic travel board. She had a long flowing skirt and three dreadlocks, and he was bald apart from a floppy green Mohawk hanging limp to one side.

A woman in a dirty black leather jacket and a face entirely obscured by scraggly hair, stumbled to the couple and asked “Hast du eine Zigarette?” The man had a bag of tobacco, which he pushed towards her. She fumbled in it and then flopped down beside the girl. The couple continued to play their game of chess. The woman in black began writhing beside them, and moving closer to the girl, until her head was resting on her lap. Every once in a while, she would raise her feet and kick the air.

When the couple had finished their game, they got up gingerly and said “tchuess” to their dosed-up friend.
She didn’t hear them, and lay alone, her head in the grass.

I finished my Guinness just as it was getting dark.

On the way home I got off at Alexander Platz, the former centre of east Berlin.

TV tower lit up in green

There I saw the iconic television tower, glowing green. I looked up at it for a while. Then I disappeared underground again and made my way home, where the cat was waiting for me.

On The “Erfolgserlebnis”

The word Erfolgserlebnis means experience of success but the usage in German is much more subtle than that.

If you win the lottery or get a great job, you don’t have an Erfolgserlebnis; you’re simply “erfolgreich”, or “successful.” But if you finish a particularly tricky Sudoku or make a delicious apple pie, you have an “erfolgserlebnis.”

My first erfolgserlebnis in Berlin was finding my hostel successfully. I am notorious for having no sense of direction. That’s still the case but because I was so anxious before I came here, I took extensive notes of the landmarks which I could expect to see when I got out of the Strassenbahn. When I then managed to find the hostel without difficulty by identifying the gigantic Fernseher Turm: the tower which was covered in mist that time I almost died while climbing the Victory Column I positively glowed with success.

My second erfolgserlebnis was finding out that there’s a marzipan flavour of Milka chocolate and that you can buy it for just 57 cent at Kaufland. I plan to stock up this weekend.

My third erfolgserlebnis was last Friday, when I had my first article published on Spiegel Online. I was convinced I would be the first intern not to have anything published so when the story came up and my ridiculous name appeared in the byline I was more than chuffed. I was smiling so stupidly on the U-Bahn on the way home that I had to hide my face in my scarf to avoid offending the other passengers.

On the way home that night I bought myself some raspberry flavour beer. Since making friends is still on my “to do” list, that evening it was just me and the cat.

Drinking beer in less challenging circumstances

After heating up some of my leftovers, I decided it was high time I settled down with some of the local brew.

Then, in one of my life’s more unfortunate epiphanies, I discovered I usually drink beer in company and often with with LSB, who is kind enough to open the bottle.

Now that I have become emancipated, I had to search helplessly for a way in to the promising brew.

I have seen cool people open beer bottles with their teeth, or by levering the edge of the lid against a counter-top.

I tried both these things. Then, remembering about the evolution of tools, I searched for a bottle opener.

I scoured the kitchen and then grabbed a little implement triumphantly from the drawer.

After several minutes, I realised that I was trying to open my bottle of beer with a garlic crusher.

This, dear readers, was not an example of an Erfolgserlebnis.

For the anxious among you, I did eventually manage to find a bottle opener and savoured the raspberry beer all evening long. Would recommend.

Why I am becoming a punk

Having been in Berlin for almost two weeks, I’ve decided to become a punk. I’ve been spying on them like a creepface since I got here, and am now planning the transformation.

I was only thinking the other day that it was time to rid myself of my squeaky clean image. The conversion would be quick and easy and wouldn’t require more than the purchase of a dog and a new wardrobe.

Plus, the lifestyle seems a lot less stressful than that of a journalist. Here are some notes I’ve made in advance of my conversion:

Punks in Berlin tick all the boxes. They have to – after all, they are German punks.

Most sport at least one stylish luminous spike, which bears a keen resemblance to a rhinoceros horn. Colours can vary, but red and green are preferred.

Piercings are mandatory. At least one nose ring is essential, as is a leather jacket with metal accessories. Spikey collars and patchwork black denim are encouraged but not proscribed.

Punks in Berlin are required to own dogs. These are unusually large hounds with leather collars, who, foaming at the mouth, are taught to snarl at conformist passers-by.

Berlin punks are early-risers. In the mornings you meet them hanging out at the U-Bahn stations taking swigs out of bottles of local beer and occasionally shouting obscenities on the escalators.

All in all, they are a benign bunch, characterised more by their sartorial conformity than by any act of rebellion.

I know I should be telling you more important things than about my dreams of joining a subculture but the problem is, all the things that are worth writing about, are “off-the-record.”

I would love to write about the Spiegel newsroom, where I spend the majority of my time in front of a computer translating articles about potential wars with Iran and the future of nuclear power in a post- Fukushima world, all while a mere three minutes away from the Brandenburg gate. But I can’t.

I’d like to talk about some peculiar characters I’ve had the delight of meeting but there’s a danger they might be reading.

I could of course write about Cauchy the housecat, who I am learning to love despite my well-documented feline aversion but that too could have libellous repercussions since Cauchy is showing signs of literacy.

Or I could tell you about the weekends I’ve spent alone wandering round the magnificent city, breathing in the incredible creative energy it contains and turning strange corners to find yet another beautiful expanse to inspire the senses. Last Sunday morning, I ventured out to the famous fleamarket at Boxhagener Platz, which is near me, and whiled away the hours looking at beauty magazines from the DDR times, and at old-fashioned dolls, which sat bolt upright in their prams, staring at me.

Flea market at Boxhagener Platz

But usually at the end of the day I am so tired that all I can do is grab a block of frozen spinach, which I buy for 35 cents in Netto, and shove it into a saucepan with an onion.

I could write about being alone, or about Skyping with LSB or about my flatmate, who is the sportiest person I have ever met and even stretches recreationally but as I’ve said before, this is not a diary.

Those tales I reserve for those of you with which I enjoy the pleasure of a private conversation.

I can report that I visited the largest chocolate shop in the world last weekend and that it was absolutely magnificent. The chocolate Reichstag was infinitely more impressive than the real thing and the enormous slabs of almond chocolate laced with cherries to die for.

Chocolate Reichstag

I also went to a street where the last cement slabs of the wall still remain in their original position. Pristine on one side and covered with graffiti on the other; a tidy contrast between freedom and repression. I climbed up high and looked down on the barbed wire fencing and Soviet watchtower and at the high-rise flats on either side, where east and west Berliners could wave at each other while the watchmen took a nap.

Remains of the Berlin Wall.

I’m alone at home now, with my feet toasty beside the radiator and the cat asleep in the armchair beside me. It’s very still here just now. Soon the neighbours will turn up their music and I’ll hear the clatter of footsteps in the hallway outside.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy the silence and curl up with a copy of The Steppenwolf, which I bought on Unter den Linden from the vendor that never ceased to talk.

Goodnight from Berlin.