Alone in Berlin: Part Two


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.

Still Alone in Berlin, still reading Alone in Berlin

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.

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17 thoughts on “Alone in Berlin: Part Two

  1. What a kaleidoscopic view of your life in Berlin! At times disjointed but still all part of the picture that is your life “Alone in Berlin”. Should dreams stay dreams if their fulfillment is followed by emptiness?

  2. Loving this series! Just as a matter of interest – if you said “yes” to the Roma girls’ question, what was it they were doing with the clipboards?

  3. Another great piece.

    When I’m out and about in far-off lands and people approach me and pester me, I always speak back to them in Irish. This has the desired effect of wrong-footing them and they turn their attentions elsewhere. It’s also very funny but try to keep a straight face until they can’t see you. Then you can have a good laugh!

  4. Thank you so much, Prasina.

    What an entirely excellent idea! I will have to try that and do my darndest not to laugh.

    Once, when I was little I was on a slow train in Bavaria with my older sisters. We were sitting near a group of Americans and decided we would speak Irish to each other for the duration of the long and dull journey. The Americans listened to the curious sounds and concluded that we were speaking a native Indian language. We giggled and kept going.

    On the way out, as we were passing the group, we broke into English, and hysterical laughter. We were young 🙂

  5. Hiya Kate! Following you on Twitter and enjoying this. The cigarette folk are, I believe, Vietnamese. When I was studying in Berlin a few years ago now, there was issues with the Vietnamese (cigarette) Mafia and a big wig, called something like ‘the Merciful One’ who was behind them all (Vietnamese humour?) and on trial. Kind of freaked me out after that. Just as a question – what exactly is the position you got a Spiegel & how did you get it? Had you already done an internship in Ireland? Ta. La Lynne

  6. Hey
    Feels bitter sweet these observant wanderings, maybe thats my age though, I’m past the age of wanderings, I’d rather my home comforts. Are you going back to Ireland soon? Your dreams change as you get older so what you achieve now will be replaced soon with something else. Life will always be exciting as long as your open to new things.

    • Sometimes they are lonely but they also make me feel more alive than ever before. Could I ask how old you are?
      I was convinced before I moved that I couldn’t live without my home comforts and I will feel that way again but for the time being, I am excited about new things. I have no idea what I’m doing. I am leaving Belrin at the end of June and spending July in Vienna. After that, there is a chance I’ll move to Edinburgh with my boyfriend, but it depends on whether I get a job in Berlin. It’s a strange feeling, not knowing.
      What are your plans, for after the Masters? Will you stay in Manchester?

      • The big 32.
        I’ll stay in Manchester till I die, with occassional visits elsewhere, and when I’m rich and famous I might get a second home in NYC, on the upper West Side. 😉
        I just got 78% in my MA, one module left, the dissertation.
        Wow, Vienna, the little known home of the Croissant. I’d like to go there. Also Edinburgh is super fabulous. I think you’ll go from strength to strength. Also home comforts are always nice!

  7. Time flies!! I really hope you will get a job in Berlin as I seem to tell you like it a lot. If it doesnt work out and the remote chance of you coming to Edinburgh actualise, I will be darned excited;)

    I like your part 2 and I learned one thing – you can pose quite well in the pic. Did you set a self-timer?

    Have you thought that the emptiness of achieving your dream stem from the fact that the excitement of achieving it is over? And you are looking for the next challenge to be stimulated? It’s the same whenever I have done an excellent job of analysis and then when the next few challenges are not as exciting, I feel somehow not satisfied enough. Any thoughts?

    • Yes, it was a self-timer job. A bit embarrassing.. but on the other hand, I am “alone in Berlin” so at least it’s authentic!

      I think I feel disproportionately guilty at every success I enjoy. Maybe I think that I could be doing things for other people rather than myself. It’s a strange habit of feeling a little pang of guilt at success that I’ve had since childhood. I felt bad when I got presents for my birthday too.. Not sure why 🙂

      I have heard great things about Edinburgh. We shall see.. it’s mostly out of my hands.. 🙂

  8. This is a great post! It perfectly captures how you can be in a city and still be alone. It’s fun to observe such a diversity of people!

    What’s nicer is when you start to make small connections with the people around you and realize that your big city can end up feeling like a small village. (Well, that’s the experience I’ve had when living in Seattle, anyway. I think I was on a waving/ salutation basis with every doorman in a 5 block radius of my house.)

    I can relate to that fear of failure/ fear of success. I wish there were a better way to get over it. For whatever reason, most of my success has walked me further and further away from the places I thought I’d like to go, so every time get a promotion, I think I may be digging myself deeper. There’s something backwards about that…

  9. Thanks so much for your lovely, thoughtful comment, Janyaa.

    Your experience in Seattle is one I’d love to have in Berlin. It’s a strange feeling to be so vaguely connected with the outside world (through blogging, Facebook etc) yet so utterly physically alone and without a friend to meet for a coffee. Something to learn from.

    I wonder what it is about fearing success.. are we trying to spite ourselves or are we simply staying grounded? Certainly something backwards in it, but maybe we are simply acknowledging the emptiness in some of our dreams..

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