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.