Berliners tell me that the 2006 World Cup was the first time since the war that Germans dared wave the national flag. Now you can see them dotted on balconies, slung out of shop windows and on the tops of cars.
In late February Berlin was brown and the air was cool. I saw a Chinese man standing by the bin at the entrance to my underground station every morning. He had a blank face and kept a neat shoulder bag slung over his body. At first, I wondered who he was waiting for. Then I learnt that he sold cigarettes, which he kept in tight plastic packaging in the bottom of his bag.
He never moved, but some days when he was feeling bold, he would line up three or four packets of Marlboro on the edge of the bin to eliminate any doubt about why he was there.
His brazen passivity intrigued me. I developed the involuntary habit of staring him right in the eye as I turned to go down the steps to the platform.
I sat in a corner on the eighth floor of a silent office. It was a five-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate. When it became warmer, I would sit by the Spree at lunchtime and watch the tourist boats go by. Sometimes I would read or listen to music, but mostly I just sat.
One night my flatmate came home and said “We’re going out.” It was shortly before midnight. He took me to a rundown sports hall. Inside it was dark. Illuminated figures were racing across a badminton field, firing glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks at each other. It smelt of sweat and alcohol. Even the nets glowed. Afterwards, a girl offered me a sip of bubble tea. It tasted like lentils and bath salts. Now I’m on the mailing list for “Spedminton,” a sport you play in the dark, while drunk.
Another time, I went to the punk bar down the road. Men and women in their forties, wearing leather jackets and vacant expressions, sat in clouds of smoke. They drank beer and had conversations about life and sometimes death. In the corner of the bar, completely out-of-place, was a foozeball table. My flatmate directed me towards it. I played so badly that his friend told me I must be tired. I thought I was at the top of my game.
At the weekends I went walking in the city. I watched teenagers nodding their heads to beat boxes, homeless men reaching into bins and Roma girls with clipboards approaching tourists, always with the same high-pitched greeting, “Speak English?”
My flatmate asked me to wipe the tiles dry after I showered. He had a special scraper for it. I would stand there, naked and dripping, pretending I was a window cleaner. A few weeks later, in a moment of rebellion, I simply stopped.
Overnight, I became a journalist. I made phone calls to surly trade unionists, government representatives and natural history museums, from a little sound-proof glass box, where my colleagues couldn’t hear me.
Once I met a man who thought I was more important than I was. He invited me to his office, which overlooked the Brandenburg Gate and he said, “So are you going to become a TV presenter?” I looked at him incredulously. And he said “You have the personality for it. You’re charming.” I told him that I was shy and didn’t want to be famous.
The dizzy feeling of accomplishment I got from publication made me afraid. I learnt that I am equally scared of success as I am of failure. Sometimes to atone, I would buy a newspaper from the crippled homeless man on Friedrichstrasse. I made a point of reading it on the way home, in case the emptiness of achieving my dream overcame me.
There was a delay on one of the underground lines in Berlin a few weeks ago because a homeless man had fallen asleep on the tracks. Security personnel rushed to the scene and the man was woken up. Bewildered, he growled at the passengers staring at him. He was escorted off the platform but it all took time. There was a short delay before service resumed.
Meanwhile, a public announcement had urged passengers to take alternative routes. I got on another train which would take me close to where I needed to go. Sitting opposite me were two little girls, aged about nine and eleven, who had also been waiting for the first train. We’d barely been on the second for five minutes when it was announced that “Service has now resumed on the U8.”
The smaller of the girls pursed her lips and shook her head, disgusted. “What an absolute joke,” she said. “Why didn’t they announce that it would only take five minutes to clear the line?” The other rolled her eyes and sighed. “This kind of thing is always occurring. It’s a farce.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, the transport system in Berlin is the single best I have ever encountered. And second, here were two tiny German girls complaining about bad service in language so adult and earnest that it was comical.
This, I thought is the difference between the Germans and the Irish.
I imagined a similar situation in Ireland, where a conversation might have gone like this: “Jaysus, the poor fella. Did you get a look at him? Lucky somebody saw him and he wasn’t driven over … Jaysus! Sure we’ll be fashionably late. It’ll be grand sure. We’ve a story to tell.”
As our economy wilts and theirs prospers, it’s worth examining what makes the Germans German and the Irish Irish. I’m in a rather convenient position to do so, being half of each.
People here tell me that when I begin to complain habitually about everything, I can be called a “Berliner.”
Complaining in Germany, as in Ireland is a national hobby. The difference here is that complaints are taken seriously.
The reason that complaints are taken seriously is that responsibility is too. When you go to a ticket vendor or to buy a hot dog, you’re served with the same level of attention as you are in a bank or a lawyer’s office.
Some time ago, I was working on a story about low wage workers and got talking to a middle-aged woman selling hot dogs on the street. “I take my job seriously,” she told me, after she spoke perfect English while serving some American tourists. “I want people to enjoy their food.” She was earning about six euro an hour and was finding it hard to make ends meet.
Sincerity too is an integral part of the German mindset. If you say “We must meet up for a coffee. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days,” it means that you will certainly arrange a date within three working days.
Shortly after I moved into my apartment, I made my flatmate dinner. It was vegetarian Shephard’s Pie and I was worried that it hadn’t turned out well. As we sat down to eat it, he took a few mouthfuls and said nothing. I was nervous. Perhaps it wasn’t to his taste. I waited for a while and then tentatively asked whether the food was alright.
“It’s delicious,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” I cried.
“Well I had to wait to taste it properly,” he said. “It would have been insincere to say it was nice straightaway.”
I thought about that for a long time.
While the Germans are responsible, reliable and sincere, the Irish are compassionate, humorous and wily.
When my parents visited me recently, they were a little slow in buying their train ticket at the machine. A woman in her twenties standing behind cursed at them and shoved them out of the way. I would like to think that in Ireland, she would have given them a hand. For all its Celtic Tiger madness, Ireland has remained a place, where, as my mother so nicely puts it, “eejits and eccentrics are well tolerated.”
Before I moved to Berlin, my boyfriend made me a mix tape which included two anthems to remind me of home. One of them is the speech Enda Kenny made to welcome Barack Obama to the country and the other is the lament, with mandolin accompaniment, performed by Joe Duffy following Thiery Henri’s handball in 2009, which crushed Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the World Cup.
The latter is ridiculous and hilarious and features lines such as “Will You be Out of Favour To Sell Gillette Razors?” and “It’s a pity for the South African nation without us at their world celebration.” Enda’s speech on the other hand, is so full of passion and pride that it’s hard not to feel a pang of affection for the little nation, which despite falling to pieces, has still managed to maintain a healthy dose of national pride.
While the Irish might champion mediocrity, they do it with charm. Ireland is like the child in the psychological experiment that gobbled up the single marshmallow, despite knowing that if it had waited, it would have received two. Germany is the child that waits for the second marshmallow but wonders whether, by the same principle, it would make more sense to continue to wait rather than to enjoy the two already gained.
The Irish are wily and endearingly naive. We wouldn’t quite call ourselves dishonest but we’d settle on being creative with the truth: the stuff of brown envelopes, dodgy property deals, shifty politicians and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of opportunistic cleverness that bagged Enda a meeting with the Chinese Vice President last February, made Jedward into national icons and allows some to hold fast to the belief that we really, really, really can win the Euros.
If we could learn accountability and responsibility from the Germans and teach them to kick back and remember that everything – probably will be grand in the end – we’d both be better off. Instead, they’ll be bailing us out for decades and we’ll be telling jokes to numb the pain.
At first it was exhilarating.
I wanted the hostel, where I stayed the first few nights, to be my home forever. I loved the anonymity of the place – the backpackers waiting for a leftover packet of pasta to boil, the discarded tea bags, the little laminated signs asking travellers to consider the environment before throwing away their rubbish.
There were two Asian-looking girls in the kitchen one evening. One had an American accent, the other was British. They had met at the hostel and now they were friends. The American wanted to go to “school” in Europe. The other nodded and made dinner.
In the evenings I bought a falafel sandwich or a slice of pizza on the main street which was soon to become my neighbourhood.
One morning — my first in Berlin, I took a bus tour of the city. On the top deck, a round lady with red-painted lips and peroxide hair gripped a microphone and gave a commentary of the city in English that was so broken that a tourist behind me muttered that he had more chance of understanding German. Her smile was fixed to her face like a stubborn mole, her face was wrinkled. If she had had no folds on her face, she would have looked like a doll. I knew she had grown up in east Germany. She learnt Russian at school. No west German tour guide would speak so little English.
I scribbled down the names of places that looked interesting from the bus. I saw pink water pipes all over the city, the president’s house, the parks, and a beautiful square.
I found my workplace and my heart jumped when I saw that it was five minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate. I found a little photo booth and got a picture taken for my student travel card. I followed the instructions for getting a passport photograph taken. “Don’t smile” said the machine. “You must not tilt your head, or obscure your face with your hair.”
I look so stony in the picture that weeks later, when the secretary at Spiegel looked at the card she said “but you are so cross!”
After I checked into my hostel on that first night, I went out to try to find the apartment I would be moving in to.
It wasn’t far from the hostel. It was late February and it was dark. I approached the flat from a direction I never walk now. I found the shoe shop and the children’s book store that Google Maps had promised me. The street was quiet and I was alone.
I found the number and glanced up at the building. It was too dark to see anything.
I walked past a church, back to the main street. Next to my hostel was a photocopying shop and a video store. All rentals one euro. There was a large adult movie section on display in the window.
The day before I moved into my new flat, I met a book vendor outside Humboldt University. He had wild white hair and a black hat. He said: “You don’t think I have mornings when I wake up and say ‘Fuck this shit. I don’t want to stand at this fucking table selling books all day? And then you know what? I see children laughing and playing and nothing matters any more.”
I nodded at him, I think I smiled. I thought we were the only two people in the city. The sky turned midnight blue and the TV tower was lit up in the distance. I bought a book called “Der Steppenwolf”. The cover is blue and there are bits of paper still stuffed inside a page in the middle of the book, where I stopped reading it.
As the lights came on and I got into a grubby underground train, something danced in my brain. Now I realise it was the taste of freedom.
Some people seem to think that my life in Berlin is all fun and games — that if I’m not grilling Angie in the Bundestag or accompanying a world-famous TV crew, I’m at the Brandenburg Gate having a laugh on the John Murray show.
Yesterday on my way home from shopping, a large carton of vanilla and blueberry ice cream melted in my bag, trickling through a crack in the lid, onto all the other food and covering my wallet and its contents in a sweet-scented white foam.
Then, as I was unpacking my shopping, my best buy, an enormous glass of Nutella (25% extra free), slid out of my hands and smashed into scores of pieces.
Shards of glass glittered on the kitchen tiles.
I used a tea spoon to separate the Nutella from the larger pieces of glass and after a quarter of an hour, was satisfied that the majority of the chocolate spread had been salvaged. I spooned it into an old jar that I found in my Recycle heap.
Then I realised that I was bleeding profusely.
A deep, clean gash had appeared in my middle finger.
Now I had ice cream on my jumper, Nutella in my hands and hair, and my blood was trickling onto the counter-top.
I took a deep breath, cleaned myself and tripped over a loose onion.
Then I boiled some millet. I was in a TV studio last week watching a health and fitness show being filmed and the guest doctor was advocating a low sugar wholegrain diet. I resolved to reform.
The millet bubbled over.
I added tomatoes, spring onions and a yellow pepper, but the taste of blandness was poorly disguised.
I ate the modest meal on my little balcony, listening to the birds sing and with the sun in my face.
I decided to go to the cinema.
I watched a French film about a couple whose baby has a brain tumour.
On my way home, I passed a fruit market. A Turkish vendor was crying hysterically “LAST OFFER!! ONE EURO FOR A PUNNET OF STRAWBEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERIES”
I bought one.
When I got home, I dropped several strawberries on the kitchen floor.
Later that evening, I decided to make German oatflake chocolate chip cookies. My father had kindly scanned an ancient page from my mum’s recipe book and I had all the ingredients to hand. I would have shown my national pride more traditionally by watching the match, but I could not figure out how to turn on my flatmate’s television.
I weighed and mixed and stirred and ground and moulded the dough into little balls. I put them into the oven, cleaned the kitchen and breathed a sigh of relief.
I decided I deserved a treat.
I got out my vanilla and blueberry ice cream (all had not been lost there either), chopped up some strawberries and added a couple of scoops of Nutella.
The first mouthful was divine. Then I tasted glass and I had to spit out little shards, one at a time. This morning, I had two German oatflake chocolate chip cookies for breakfast. They were burnt.
“What does this mean?” I said, thrusting an official letter from the Federal German Post Office at my flatmate.
His eyes darted from left to right.
“You have to go to customs to collect a parcel,” he replied.
“Yes, but why?”
“I don’t know.”
The customs office was far, far away. When I got off the train I saw a motorway, some industrial buildings and a pair of old ladies smoking. It was cold and damp.
As I approached the dreary concrete customs office and a wind began to blow, I began to feel more and more like I was at home. I joined the queue. Two men were working behind the desk. Another fifty or so people were sitting with little tickets, waiting for their number to be called. A waft of inefficiency filled the air.
It came to my turn. I handed the officer my documents. He had a crinkled orange face and a snide mouth. “Do you know the sender?” he asked.
I did. My lovely sister, who is a geneticist in Philadelphia and says she analyses butt samples for a living, had sent me a parcel back in April and was dismayed that it had not arrived yet.
“What’s in the parcel?” said the man gruffly.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s a gift.”
“Well I don’t know isn’t going to get you very far, is it?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said “but how am I to know what is inside the parcel?”
He narrowed his eyes. “We need to know what’s in the parcel.”
“Okay,” I said with false breeziness. “I’m sorry, but I’m not from Germany and I’m not familiar with this system. How does it work?”
His lips flickered with hatred.
“Do you think you’re the only one who needs to be served today? Look behind you. Look at the queue.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what’s in the parcel.”
“What could it be then?” he said with dull resignation.
I paused. He fumed.
“I’m sorry I don’t know. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or some chocolate. I really don’t know.”
He scribbled something down and issued me with a ticket. On it was printed the number 240.
“It’s a minimum two hour wait. Do you want to accept the parcel?”
“Well sit down then.”
I took a seat beside a black man, who was swinging his legs with boredom.
I looked at the clock. It was twenty to four. “I’ll chance it,” I thought to myself.
I got out my phone and dialled my sister’s number.
“Nothing has happened. There is no emergency. I’m sorry for calling so early.”
My sister, who was settling into a day’s work in her laboratory listened patiently as I told her that I was in the middle of nowhere and that officials were demanding to know what was inside her parcel.
“It’s a handmade bag,” she said.
“Aw!” I said. “That’s so sweet! Thank you so much.”
“Way to ruin a surprise!”
I rejoined the queue.
This time I got the other official.
“Hello,” I said. “I was talking to your colleague earlier.” (The latter snorted over, “It’s true.”) “I have just called my sister in America. And I can reveal that there is a handmade bag in the package.”
He looked at me. Silently.
“Does this help you?”
“It is too late,”he said. “You have been issued with a number already. You must wait your turn. When your number is called, you will open the parcel with a knife in the presence of an official.”
I returned to my seat. Thankfully I had Greg Baxter’s book “The Apartment” with me.
Every thirty seconds my reading was interrupted by a ping announcing a number.
After some time, I became puzzled. The numbers were not being called in chronological order.
I glanced at the noticeboard directly in front of me. Pinned to it was a sign which said “Customers should note that due to our organisational system, numbers may not be called in chronological order.”
Pot luck, then.
One of the girls in the queue was being told that she had to pay €75 tax on clothing from America which she had bought online. She was confused and dismayed.
“That’s the rules,” said the official.
Suddenly there was a ping and the number “240” flashed on the display board. I jumped. Only one rather than two hours had elapsed since my confinement.
I rushed through a little white door and found myself in a large space full of long tables. I made my way to station number 5. The official with whom I had spoken to second was standing behind the table.
I let out a little squeal of excitement.
The official handed me a knife.
I put the knife down and tore it upon with my bare hands.
An envelope and a little package covered in bubble wrap slid out.
I unwrapped the bubble wrap carefully.
My heart skipped. In my hands was the most adorable and charming of cloth bags. It had a brown strap and buckle and the pattern was Berlin-themed. There were little green signs with the names of the city’s famous stations and scattered between them, were little pictures of umbrellas, clocks, suitcases and trains.
The official’s face changed.
He smiled. “That’s lovely.”
“My sister made it,” I said, still gasping.
Then he looked at the envelope. My sister had written “Fraulein Katztilde” on it in purple pen.
“That’s sweet,” he said.
“No tax payable. Have a nice weekend.”
I didn’t wait for an answer and dashed outside clutching my precious bag.
I opened the envelope on the train. Apart from all the other lovely things she had written, my sister also finally provided unequivocal proof of her genius.
“I couldn’t decide which fabric was better so I made the bag reversible – just turn it inside out to go from urban U Bahn chic to traditional chocolate Fesch.”*
I looked at the red fabric on the inside of the bag, which featured lots of pictures of traditional German chocolate from times past.
Somehow, my sister, had created a two-sided magnet-drawn fastener which would allow me to sport two super-cool German-themed bags in a city known for both its trendiness and efficiency.
So, not only is she a talented analyser of butt samples, terribly witty, exceptionally attractive, kind, sweet and thoughtful, my sister is also a queen of crafts.
So, if you are reading, Jane Franziska, thank you so much. I absolutely love it. You’re a complete ledgeBAG.
*Fesch is a German word meaning something like “trendy,” which the Ferguson family finds amusing.