Yesterday an old and spindly man carrying a canvas rucksack got on the S42 train. By his side, ranging far beyond his hip, was the largest dog I have ever seen. The animal’s expansive snout was curved into an unmissable expression of contentment and its panting caused a pleasant breeze to waft in my direction. The pair captured the attention of the entire carriage. One lady gasped and another simply pointed and shook her head.
The considerate hound immediately dove under a row of seats and stretched out its gargantuan mass. The old man plonked himself down nearby. I chose the seat next to him. I had to keep my legs dangled in the air because a portion of the canine was jutting out far beyond the area beneath the seat. The old man took out a newspaper and I opened my book.Shortly after I felt him abandon the paper and read over my shoulder. I hoped my leisurely reading pace suited his. The book was The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Its author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, became paralysed after a stroke and could only communicate by blinking. He died at the age of forty-four.
The man and his enormous dog stayed on the train for five stops. As he was getting ready to disembark, one of the ladies, who had been staring unashamedly the whole time, blurted out, “How much does he weigh?”
“Sixty seven kilos,” the old man replied in a flash and added, “He’s not a Saint Bernard either; he just looks like one.”
The lady nodded earnestly. “And how old is he?”
The doors slid open and the old man stepped forward. Then he hesitated and turned around again.
He looked the lady in the eye.
“He’s the best thing ever to happen to me,” he said.
This wardrobe-like structure lives on a traffic island in west Berlin. It’s called a “Schenk”(present) Box”. It’s a beautiful idea. Anybody who either has something they don’t need, or is feeling generous, can come and leave a present in the box for a stranger to pick up at a later date. I’ve found all sorts of things in there: pots and pans, baby clothes, board games, a kettle, clothes and books. I picked up English copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple as well as The Hobbit in German. The rules are very simple: keep the box neat and tidy, don’t use it as a dumpster, don’t re-sell your gifts. I’m already wondering what I’m going to leave there. Why not make a suggestion on my Facebook page here?
I’ve got what many of you might envy: a tonne of free time in Berlin.
Just imagine: I’m at leisure in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I’ve no one to answer to, no pressing business to attend to and no miscreant alarm clock ripping me from my slumbers.
Kate Katharina: a lady of leisure? image source: store.craftsbyveronica.com
Not so much. The exhilaration I felt the first time I arrived in the city has dissipated. I know my way around and though I’m still impressed by the public transport, travelling on the underground no longer gives me butterflies.
My days are clumsily punctuated by grocery shopping, small errands and the quest for personal improvement.
When I go grocery shopping, I invest a lot of energy into not falling for any of the tricks I learnt about in the Psychology of Economics class I took at college. I evaluate the price of items per kilogram, I immediately avoid all products at eye level and cast my gaze downwards to where the discounted goods tend to be displayed. After all, if there’s one thing I remember from that course, it’s the mantra, “Eye level is buy level.”
Shortly before my life began to be defined by trips to my local discounters, I organised my days around navigating German bureaucracy. It was so horrifying that I considered dedicating a series of posts to it but I’ve since concluded that writing about it might trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress. In summary, German bureaucracy is a delightful contrivance, designed to test the upper limits of patience, sanity and cognition. Now that I am officially registered extant, have been issued with a tax number and opened a bank account, I feel equipped to take on any challenge.
If only one would present itself.
Since I am unemployed (happily only temporarily), and know very few people here, I am trying desperately to channel my social deficit into intellectual pursuit.
I’ve re-ignited my passion for Arabic. I sit at my desk with a little notebook and take down the Arabic word of the day on Youtube and practise making guttural sounds when I am sure my flatmates aren’t within hearing distance. I’m getting better.
I’ve read a few books.
I’ve got out at underground stops I select on a whim to explore new parts of town.
I’ve even started running and enrolled in a yoga class. And the other day, I went on a picnic alone. I thought it would be idyllic.
My destination was a historical palace with beautiful gardens that border a colossal park. On the day of my picnic it was very warm. I packed my Pocahontas towel along with a lunch box full of grapes and a tofu sandwich.
I found a beautiful spot beside a little lake. I rolled up my hippy pants, took out my food and began to read my book. Beautiful solitude, I was thinking to myself. How lucky I am to be wedged between a palace and a lake, munching on a soggy but delicious tofu sandwich.
Suddenly I sensed a presence behind me. “Good Afternoon” said a voice.
I turned around to find a self-important middle-aged man on a bicycle pointing at me. “Sie befinden sich jetzt im Barock Garten, junge Dame!” Since I find it amusing to translate German literally and will be fired if I do it when working in TV, I’ll do so now. What the man said was “You are now situated in the Baroque garden, young Madam.”
I lost a piece of tofu in my fright. He continued. “You are not permitted to lounge in such an area.”
Since I am by nature irrationally apologetic, I said I was terribly sorry. I gathered up my stuff and made my way through the park. He nodded at me grimly and cycled away.
I set up camp on a little patch of grass beside a bench and close to the river Spree. I was there for about half and hour and I was ripping through my book. The sun was making me sleepy.
Tyres ground to a halt behind me. “Good Afternoon, young Madam.” Dread shot through me. I turned around. We recognised each other instantly. “You again!”
“You find yourself at this time in the Louisen Garten, officially attached to the palace of Charlottenburg. This is a restricted area, unsuited to lounging. You must move along.”
“Where to?” I asked. This time I was not as apologetic.
“Beyond that far bridge, you will find an area dedicated to the general public.”
I packed up my things and made my way to the bridge.
On the way I spotted several other people enjoying the sun. The park warden called over to me from his bicycle. “Don’t get any ideas from these loungers, young Madam. They are also in prohibited areas and will be moving along shortly.”
He cycled up to a mother feeding her baby. “Young mother, you find yourself in the Luisen Garten!”
She looked bewildered. As did the other people he approached. I was close enough to see him point at me and call out, “Follow that young lady, who will lead you to an acceptable lounging area.”
Suddenly I was leading a pack of transgressors. When I had crossed the bridge, I found the “lounging area.” The grass rose up to my knees. It was an unpromising destination for the pilgrims I was guiding but it was sanctioned by the park warden. I sighed and laid down my Pocahontas towel for a third time.
And then I thought that maybe what I’m learning here has nothing to do with Arabic, or fitness or journalism. With every empty day that passes, I’m being schooled in the art of being alone.
“And I stiiiiill haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Bono confessed in 1987, the year I was born. Sometimes I get the impression that some people who land here can relate. Here are some of my favourite Search Engine referrals to date.
Image Source: pulkit.me
“Inside a Septic Tank:”
I’d rather not be, if I could at all help it.
“How to find a leprechaun:”
I used to find it helpful to hover around the Molly Malone statue but if you are outside of Ireland, I suggest waiting for the next rainbow. Bring a magnifying glass as leprechauns tend to be very small.
“Legion of Mary Logo”:
I wish I had designed it.
“Entertain my “savant girlfriend:”
Look here, I’ve got enough to deal with with LSB and his preternatural processing speed. Read up on absolutely anything she’s not interested in and impart your wisdom lazily. That way you’ll seem generally well-informed rather than narrow and specialist.
“Kate Ferguson Teacher of the Year:”
Katekatharina… Teacher of the Year?
Aw, you guys. You shouldn’t have. Is there a cash prize?
Not the first place I’d look for one but sounds like a promising premise for a science fiction novel.
“Nasal Paper Tissues:”
An underrated modern commodity.
“Is a pen a metaphorical penis?”
No, absolutely, definitely not.
“Messiah Dundrum Shopping Centre:”
He’s as likely to be there as anywhere else. Check Harvey Nicks.
“Something happened in Kurdistan:”
Chances are, yes.
“All piercings possible:”
Why limit yourself?
“Brain with muscles:”
More useful than one without but don’t get too macho about it.
“Alone in Berlin:”
Don’t rub it in.
I invented this discipline title. Here’s the proof.
I used to be an authority but around the time Vogue abandoned us for like, Brian McFadan and like, Australia I said “feck it” and moved to Berlin.
“Quarter Life Crisis:”
I’m an expert.
“Man walking three Saint Bernards:”
An excellent, specific search. You didn’t deserve to land here. I’m sorry.
I wouldn’t have the faintest notion.
“Hairy German Women”:
A niche interest indeed.
“Daniel O’Donnell Museum:”
Planned for my next pilgrimage.
A cyber rival? Should I be worried?
“Clear toilet seat:”
I like the ones where it looks like fish are swimming around the rim.
Mauerpark is sparkling in brilliant sunshine. There are hundreds, maybe thousands here.
“Alright!?” an Irish voice shouts to the crowd. He’s standing beside a beatbox-turned-bicycle and a colourful umbrella. There’s a Macbook by his feet. His audience is positioned about him like in an amphitheatre.
“First up we have … Decker!”
A man with tufty grey sideburns, a suit jacket and a slight hunch shuffles to the centre. He lays his cloth bag on the ground and takes the microphone.
First performance of the afternoon
The track starts. Decker begins to croon a German love song.
The tempo increases, he closes his eyes and gets to the chorus. The crowd explodes.
A few more verses and it’s all over. Decker takes several modest, tiny bows before worming his way through the crowd and back out into the park.
Next up is a thin teenage boy wearing a baseball cap. He sings “Every Breath You Take.” Mid-way through he stops and squints at the Macbook on the ground. He’s lost his place. The crowd fills in by clapping and soon he’s back to promising that he’ll be watching us; every breath we take, every step we take.
Katie comes next. She’s a bold and bubbly American comedian. She can’t sing but she’s here to promote her stand-up show. She shakes her body, throws her head back, grabs a passionate hold of an unsuspecting man in the front row and finishes the performance by firing fliers for her next show at the crowd.
We hear Brad from Arizona, who looks like a cowboy and sounds like Elvis Presley.
Then comes Miss Britney. She’s wearing a golden bikini top and tiny hotpants.
“Woah” says the Irish MC. “Do you always wear those clothes?”
She smiles like Britney and says “at least if my singing doesn’t impress, my clothes will!”
She wins the crowd over with a rendition of “Paparazzi.”
Then comes Ellie, a German girl who sings acapella. She’s followed by man in his fifties who brought his own lyrics, which he he unfolds like a scroll as he gets through the verses.
Finally there’s Seán, from Portland, Oregon. He’s scruffy and handsome with big tattooed arms. The MC is fixing something on the computer and kills time by asking Seán if he’s got a girlfriend or a “special person.” He doesn’t. “And why did you come from squeaky clean Portland to dirty, grubby, tattooy Berlin?”
“I got a job,” says Seán.
The crowd roars with approval.
“A proper job?”
Even better. The Irish MC warns Seán that he is becoming irresistible to the ladies.
Katie the stand-up comedian needs no more prompting. She rushes to the stage, launches herself at Seán and falls down to one knee.
When things have turned sober again, Seán from Portland takes the microphone and performs a stunning version of “House of the Rising Sun.”
This happens every Sunday in Mauerpark in Berlin. The event was set up in 2009 by Irishman Joe Hatchiban, who uses portable, battery-powered boxes to let everyone and anyone unleash their inner star. You can find out more about karaoke in Mauerpark here. It’s yet another reason to love the city.
I’d like to thank a lady called Clare, whom I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting but who sent me a very kind email after my more melancholy post yesterday. She advised me to give this event a go and I’m so glad I did. As you all know, I don’t write for money (though if any philanthropist is reading..) and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth all the work. But when I hear from a kind stranger like Clare, I know it’s worth every minute.
My underwear is spinning furiously in the washing machine next door. The bedroom walls are shaking. Somewhere close a clock I cannot see is ticking. I’m propped up in my double bed in west Berlin, thinking of LSB.
He’s hundreds of miles away. I imagine him waking up in his hostel in Edinburgh and stepping gingerly by sleeping bodies as he makes his way to the bathroom.
We Skyped last night. He was in the hostel lounge, which was lit up like a disco hall in flashing shades of red and green and purple. The way he was sitting made it look like there were daffodils sprouting out of his shoulders but when he moved I could see they were artificial flowers wedged into a plastic vase.
He’d been looking at flats all day and was fatigued. I’d spent the day copying Arabic phrases into a notebook and trying to commit the 50 states of America to memory.
We were both alone in exciting cities and we were both demoralised.
“This going away thing is not that easy,” said LSB.
“It’s not all glamour, is it Katzi?”
LSB and I are good at being alone. We don’t fall into a restless panic when idle and we don’t rush for company the moment we’re abandoned.
So yes, we have inner resources. But sometimes they too can be tested.
LSB in Sligo
For those that don’t know, I moved back to Berlin to work as a writer and translator for television. The job doesn’t start until October, and it will only be on a freelance basis then. For reasons that could fill a book, I arrived back here early. I moved into my flat two weeks ago, exhausted after an encounter with a Turkish man, who bought me buttermilk and offered me a flat.
At first I busied myself with practical things. I registered with the police, opened a bank account and got a tax number. Not thrilling achievements, but ones you can tick off a list.
I’ve been in work a bit for training but apart from that my days have been long voids punctuated by little plans, like going to Penneys or doing grocery shopping. I’m trying to better myself by learning things but I’m distracted by financial worries and as always, about what I’m doing with my life.
LSB, happily or unhappily, is in the same boat. Saturday stretches ahead of us. These cities are full of possibilities. We need only step outside or on a train, but something inside of us, human and inert, guides us to inaction.
Some time ago the washing machine let out a shrill cry. My underwear is clean. A small conquest.
Penneys has come to Berlin. It’s enormous. And like in Britain, it’s called Primark. It takes up most of the Schloss-Straßen shopping centre. Our ambassador opened it officially back in July.
I had to visit.
As soon as I got off the train, I spotted two übercool teenage boys swinging Primark shopping bags. Very pleasing.
It was full to the brim inside. Like a game of bumper cars. It may have opened over a month ago, but Berliners are still coming to terms with this Irish import.
Primark takes up most of the shopping centre! I probably looked a little strange taking this photo.
One girl I saw had stopped dead in front of a €2 pair of wine-coloured tights. She picked them up and stroked them. Then she bent her face over them in case she had missed a trick. After one final caress, she flung them into her enormous cloth basket.
You can’t blame her. Such a thing is unheard of in Berlin. While everything else may be cheaper (and I mean everything: rent, food, toiletries, pets ..), clothes are not. Especially not tights. Tights are a luxury afforded to those lucky enough to have a disposable income of more than seven euro.
Onesies are new too. They may be a step too far for Berliners though. The section with the zebra-print one-piece suits with lace-up paws was the only one empty today. But as the weather cools down, perhaps braver Berliners will take the plunge.
Nobody stopped me from taking a picture of the onesies..
Primark Berlin is full of languages. I couldn’t count them all as there were some I couldn’t distinguish with certainty. Staff wear the same uniform as in Dublin and the Muslim women wear black headscarves.
It was surreal to hear staff announcements like “Ute Müller zur Kasse bitte” blasting through the store.
I couldn’t justify my expedition without visiting the fitting rooms. I joined an almighty queue. Unlike in Dublin, the lighting on the way into the changing area is dim. Almost Hollister-esque, which made me cringe. It snaked around and around and made me feel like I was about to visit a haunted house.
“Manno,” said a girl in front. “This is going to take forever.”
“Only eight items per person,” cried the shop assistant. “It’s quicker that way.”
I had grabbed a yellow mini skirt and a woollen wrap to try on.
In huge letters above the changing room entrance it says. “Try it, Like it, Buy it!” Germans love English slogans.
The light inside the changing rooms was just as unflattering as in Dublin. It just proves the success of the business model. People buy this stuff despite recognising blotches and follicle sprouts ordinarily concealed by more flattering light.
Neither skirt worked. Might have been the lighting but more likely the fact that I am very poor. I did however make a purchase. I’ve started running you see. Not far, or fast or anything, but you do end up breaking into a little sweat. So I picked up a turquoise tank top that promised to “stretch” and headed to the checkout. No amount of semesters studying economic psychology could take away the temptation to impulse buy on the way to the till. I resisted faux porcelain cupcake-shaped containers, facial wipes and novelty socks. But when I saw antibacterial handwash I could stand it no longer. I grabbed a bottle. My total purchase came to €6.
Outside I walked down Schlossstrasse and wandered into Vero Moda. Without the soft rock in the background, you could have heard a pin drop. Empty as sin. A blonde sales assistant was unfolding folded sweaters. “Hello,” she said when she saw me. There was a hint of hope in her voice. I took a look around. The clothes were nice, and I looked more tolerable in the mirrors. But some things cost more than €15. And I’m not sure if they got the memo, but there’s a recession on. And if there’s one thing we Irish know a lot about…
It was the summer of 2000 and things were going swimmingly. Ireland was the fastest growing economy in the developed world and the unemployment rate had dropped from 10% to 5% in three years. Mary Harney, second in command, had been invited to address the annual meeting of the American Bar Association at Blackhall Place in Dublin.
Mary Harney’s message was a positive, American-friendly one. Image source: http://www.imt.ie
Her short speech sparked a debate which has since become known as “Boston or Berlin.” Harney drew attention to Ireland’s unique position wedged between Europe and America and summarised the characteristics commonly associated with each continent. Europe stood for social inclusion and governmental regulation while America championed the freedom of the individual and minimal government involvement. She acknowledged that they were simplified descriptions but concluded that “spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.”
Twelve years later, Ireland’s unemployment rate is 14.9%, emigration is at its highest rate since the 1980s and the continents on both sides of our shores are in crisis.
Without the background roar of the Celtic Tiger and the allure of shiny cars and kitchen extensions, now might be the time to revisit the debate from a more sober perspective.
What did Harney mean when she said we were “spiritually” closer to Boston than Berlin? Was she referring to our economic model, which had been defined by tax cuts and incentives for foreign investors? Or was she talking about our common language, our history and culture; our national psyche?
Boston Image Source: irishcentral.com
Whether or not economic policy can be divorced from the ideology or “spirit” of a place is debatable but given that Ireland matched corporate incentives with a generous welfare system, our affiliation with either Boston or Berlin isn’t even clear in fiscal terms. Our identity crisis is totally understandable. We are a tiny, teddy-bear shaped island on the outskirts of Europe and on the passageway to America. We’ve only been independent since 1922. And we stayed out of the Second World War.
This second fact is absolutely central to any lack of affinity we have with Europe. The European Union we know today is the product of a collective abhorrence of the horrors suffered and inflicted during the war and a resolve – at all costs- to prevent evil from recurring. The focus has always been on unity. The foundation of the United States, on the other hand, arose from a very different impulse: a determination for independence and resistance to the coloniser.
We can relate more to the latter than to the former. We too rose up against what we conceived as an oppressor. And though we can read and learn about it, we cannot really fathom the horrors of World War II. Here in Berlin, they are etched into bronze plaques on buildings, in concrete slabs on train platforms and in the minds of thousands whose lives were brutally dismantled.
Ireland is in a lucky place: we are liked by our neighbours on both sides. Americans find us charming and endearing and mainland Europeans find us wholesome, mysterious and other-worldly.
And while we happily consume and model American culture, we are less familiar with that of our closer neighbours in Europe.
German, with over 90 million native speakers, is the most spoken language in Europe but only 18% of Irish school pupils learn the language. That compares with the 94% of German and 99% of French pupils learning English. Of course, English has become the biggest international language of trade and technology and we can easily “get away” with not knowing another foreign language, but we also lose out on the opportunities to work and travel elsewhere in the European Union, safe in the knowledge that our basic living needs will be met by our membership.
To live and work in Boston you must prove that no American would be fit to take your job whereas to live and work in Berlin, you just need to turn up and register yourself with the authorities.
America is a place where a large portion of people do not believe that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and where a channel with as big a following as Fox News can claim without irony that the Muppets movie promotes a Communist agenda. It might be united by a common language and culture but its artificial two-party system results in less understanding and consensus than the 23 languages of the European Union do.
Berlin Image Source: a-t-s.net
Back in Blackhall Place in the summer of 2000, Mary Harney, referring to Ireland’s economic model said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Now that it’s very much broken, we might do well to look at Berlin as well as Boston.