When Final Fantasy 7 turns real

A while ago I was working on a story about poverty in Germany. I found out about a place called Kaffee Bankrott, where people go to get cheap meals and emergency shelter.

I went there one grey and humid afternoon. On the way in, a group of young men speaking a foreign language looked me up and down. I smiled at them stupidly. I always do that when I’m nervous.

The cafe was full. Some people looked down-and-out. Others were in suits. Everyone was staring at me.

There’s something despicable about walking into a place like that and telling people that you’re a journalist – working on a story about poverty.

image source: http://www.strassenfeger.org/archiv/topic/21.kaffee_bankrott.html

image source:www.strassenfeger.org

But that’s what I did – I approached an elderly man with a long beard.

“No,” he said.

I looked at his friend.

“No.”

But something about my polite response to rejection must have softened them.

The first man made a joke. “That guy’s a millionaire,” he said, pointing to his shabby companion. “He’s not what you’re after.”

I laughed. “That’s another story then,” I said. “I’ll be back for it!”

I began circulating again. I am relatively good and identifying an open face. There weren’t any here.

But then I spotted a blonde head bent over an A4 pad. A middle-aged woman was sitting alone, smoking and writing furiously. I was drawn to her like a magnet.

I told her who I was, what I was doing, that I was Irish. The latter is a bad habit I’ve developed so that I seem like more of an outsider. It cushions the blow when you act like an idiot.

“Well then we can talk in English,” she said.

I was too stunned to ask why she could speak perfect English and why it sounded as if she’d learnt it in America.

We made an arrangement to meet the following week.

This is the write-up of the interview which was published in an English language broadsheet last month.

Café Bankrott in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg district provides cheap meals and a place to stay for people in need. 49-year-old Astrid Baty comes here nearly every day. She gets a coffee, takes out a notepad and pen, lights a cigarette and begins to write, furiously.

Her stories are based on the Final Fantasy video game series. But, she says, “I could easily write a book about my own life.”

Astrid Baty was born in Bochum in western Germany and grew up in the state of Saarland on the French border. After she left school, she trained to become a painter-decorator. There were 8 girls and 240 boys in the class. She didn’t find work in the area so instead got a secretarial qualification. From 1983 to 1990 she lived in the south-western state of Baden-Würtemberg and worked as an office clerk to a broker.
Then at the age of 26, she moved to the United States, where she was to stay for the next eleven years. Within weeks of arriving, she had found a job. She worked as a cartoonist, drawing for small newspapers, as well as for the Marvel company.

“When I arrived, I didn’t speak a word of English,” she says. “But within three months I picked it up. “I read the same Stephen King novel page-by-page in German and English.”

In the more than a decade she spent in the United States, Astrid Baty was never out of work for more than two weeks.

“It helped that I was willing to move 3000 miles,” she says, laughing. She lived in New York, Florida, Los Angeles and Oregon. Her favourite job was with the Salvation Army, helping victims of the Los Angeles earthquake.

source: finalfantasy.wikia.com

source: finalfantasy.wikia.com

In June of 1996, Astrid Baty got married. Five years later however, the marriage broke down. The collapse of her relationship and the election of George W. Bush were behind her decision to move back to Germany. “I began to get the feeling that people who were not born in the US were beginning to be pushed aside,” she says.
Back in Germany, she was offered a job with Lufthansa. “I was going to work at the counter because I had two languages,” she says. “But then September 11th happened and that was the end of that.”

Since then, life has been a struggle. She returned to Saarland and worked in a so-called “mini-job” cleaning a bakery, which paid €400 a month and supplemented her unemployment benefit.
But the job was humiliating. “I was the only one who’d come in every day,” she says. “Eventually I quit the job. I’m not a slave.”

She continued her job hunt but to no avail. “I always get the same response – we’ll call you if something comes up.”
The problem, she believes, is not lack of qualifications, but her age. “I’m not 25 and I don’t have the figure of Claudia Schiffer,” she says.

Still unemployed, Astrid Bates moved to Berlin in 2009. “Saarland was too small,” she says. “Berlin was like New York. I thought there would be more possibilities there.”
Her big hope was to get a job at the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport, which was due to open in 2012. But that project has been plagued by delays and the opening date has been pushed back indefinitely. “It won’t be open until 2075!” she says, chuckling.

Unable to support herself, Astrid Baty ended up on the street for a short time, before somebody told her about Café Bankrott, which is run by the Strassenfeger street newspaper group. The organisation provides emergency accommodation and Astrid Baty stayed there for six months before being provided with a flat from social services.

She volunteers in the kitchen at Café Bankrott and occasionally sells the Strassenfeger. Her impression is that people buy more from women than men. “It also helps that I’m not drunk or on drugs,” she says. “I always make sure I dress well when I’m selling.”

She thanks an old teacher for introducing her to a book which put her off experimenting with drugs. “At school we read Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo by Christiane F and I’ve never forgotten it,” she says. It is a true story of a girl living rough in the area around the Bahnhof Zoo station of the former West Berlin who becomes a drug addict and prostitute. “The idea of selling your body to pay for drugs… it was a horror,” she says.

In 2012, Astrid Baty experienced what could be described as a horror. “I had a sore back,” she says. “But thought nothing of it.” The next thing she knew, she was in hospital. “I had no idea I’d had a heart attack,” she says. She spent a week in intensive care and went through three weeks of rehabilitation.

“They took good care of me,” she says. But in October of last year, she had more heart trouble. As a result, even if she were to get a job, she is now no longer allowed to work more than three hours a day. That puts her on an alternative disability benefit, known as ‘Erwerbsminderungsrente’, which is in the process of coming through.
Both of Astrid Baty’s parents are deceased and she has no contact with her brother. She’s lost touch with her friends in America too.

It’s a situation that would drive many to despair. But Astrid Baty insists that despite her plight, she is happy.

“What’s the use of whining?” she asks. “I overheard a girl complaining about the weather recently. What’s the point in that? We can’t change it!”

“I also have a hobby to keep my mind occupied,” she says. “I write.”
The notepad in front of her contains pages and pages of immaculate script. “I write fan fiction,” she says. “The stories just come to me – it’s like seeing a movie in front of my eyes.” She got her first games console in the United States and has been an avid gamer ever since. A search for her username, “Moonshadowcat” on Germany’s leading fan fiction site, http://www.fanfiktion.de reveals dozens of stories and also directs to a self-built website in both English and German which Astrid Baty uses to promote her services as a painter, translator and secretary.

But if she is cynical about anything, it’s politics. “We get support. But the problem is – while I live on €378 a month, the politicians are earning thousands.”
“Okay, I smoke,” she concedes. “But the money’s still not enough to cover everything else, like train tickets, heating, food, clothes and toiletries.”

She doesn’t believe much will change after the election. “For little people like us, it’ll be the same.” But, she says, she will turn out to vote. “I can’t complain about anything if I don’t vote.”
When it comes to the future, Astrid Baty is ambivalent. “I’ve no big plans,” she says. “I would love to go back to the US. But that’s not possible … I would like to find work.”

Her dream job would have something to do with computers and writing. “Give me a computer and I can do almost anything,” she says.

In the meantime, she plans to keep writing and coming to Café Bankrott, where she has made friends. “But who knows how long I’ve got left after my heart attack?” she says.

This is what slipping through the net looks like.

It’s not a sob-story. Astrid is resilient. And she is content.

The stories she writes are homo-erotic. She has suggestive lips and she laughs a lot. She views death relatively casually.

She has more dignity than most.

But her story represents the tragedy of lost potential.

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What I’ve learnt from Edward Snowden

Mauerpark is home to some of the few remaining slabs of the Berlin Wall. They are dotted neatly along Bernauer Straße and flanked by a visitors’ centre and tower. Tourists climb the tower and look down on the street, imagining it divided in two.

A few weeks ago, a Mercedes pulled up on Bernauer Straße. Michelle Obama and her daughters got out. They were met by a man in a black suit. As they made their way into the visitors’ centre, he gestured to the area around them and they nodded attentively. A few minutes later, I saw their tiny heads at the top of the tower.

Lately I’ve been spending my evenings on the other side of the park, closer to the stalls housing ponies and goats and pens full of guinea pigs. I go there after work and read Stasiland. It’s a paperback with a yellow and black cover. The ‘L’ of the title has been extended to separate Stasi from and. I avoided it for months, admiring instead the bold colours of its spine, which stood out like a bee among the other titles on my shelf. I had got it into my head that it would be a bleak read; more of a history lesson and less of a story.

I was wrong. It is compelling and original. The author, Anna Funder, tells remarkable stories in unsentimental language. She is a master of observation – a fitting tribute to her task, which is unravelling the lives of East Germans constantly under surveillance.

I don’t just go to Mauerpark to read though. I go to watch.

There are two places I like to sit.

The first is on the top of a hill covered in purple flowers that look like lavender but which somebody told me, categorically, they are not.

The second is in an arena made of concrete. On Sundays, an Irishman with a battery-powered box moderates enormously popular karaoke sessions there. During the week though it is populated by shaggy-haired men playing guitar, groups of teenagers with shisha pipes and old stooped figures moving quickly up and down, collecting the glass bottles people discard on the ground. Later, they recycle them for cash.

Once I observed three teenagers in an unequal relationship. They were sitting in the centre of the arena. The two girls would kiss and hold hands while the boy sat beside them drinking beer. Then one of the girls would break off from the other to wrap her arms around the boy and climb onto his knee, while the other sat alone. The relationship seemed to intersect around one of the girls; the other two didn’t touch. After some time, the girls took each other’s hands and walked away, leaving the boy – and me- watching them from behind.

Karaoke in Mauerpark

karaoke in Mauerpark

I also watch people setting up picnics, cooing at their babies and shooting basketball hoops.

It doesn’t occur to me that I am being watched.

The office where I freelance is close to Mauerpark. My job requires me to write about German news, in English, very fast. In the past few weeks, one face has been appearing on top of several of my stories.

image source: Wikimedia

image source: Wikimedia

It is young, chiselled and bespectacled.

It’s Edward Snowden. There is a stock photograph that the agencies have which is a still from an interview that was recorded last month.

I’ve looked at it carefully. Snowden is facing the camera at an angle. His image is reflected in the mirror behind him and his expression is tense but firm.

When I write about him I use terms like “NSA whistleblower” and “fugitive” because that’s what everybody else is calling him.

I dutifully record the sequence of events as they appear in the agency feeds and try to come up with snappy headlines to fit the stories.

But the more I see Snowden, the more uncertain I become.

When it broke that US intelligence agencies were monitoring vast amounts of telecommunications, I was surprised it was a story.

Wasn’t it a given?

I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Others have told me, somewhat sheepishly, that they too expected it to be the case.

News of microphones in EU offices did shock me though. Unlike the internet, they are tangible devices. People need to conspire to plant them. They feature in detective novels and in the Cold War.

And as sometimes happens, I began to question myself.

‘Virtual reality,’ I thought, is an oxymoron. Spying on the internet requires forethought too.

And taking the technology for granted only adds to its sophistication.

Most of the time I am content to be gratefully bamboozled by how it is that the face of my friend in South Sudan can pop up on my screen or that my boyfriend and I can share a beer together – he in Edinburgh and I in Berlin.

But reading Stasiland and writing about Edward Snowden has caused me to uncover an uncomfortable truth of my own.

I have underestimated the capabilities of those in power. And I have become inert, thanks to a life full of comfort.

I escaped World War II by just fifty years and was four when the Cold War sort of ended.

But I figured – out of laziness – that nobody could be watching me and that those that are being spied on, probably deserve to be.

I have, it seems, a trust in authority that has only just become explicit.

Edward Snowden, a disillusioned geek, is just five years older than me. I am impressed by the hysteria he has unleashed. It, rather than anything he’s revealed, has shaken me up.

I’ve learnt that I live in a world where a plane carrying Latin American dignitaries can be forced to ground on the suspicion that a tech-clever ex-contractor could be on board. I’ve learnt that the balance of power in the West is an uncomfortable thing. And I’ve learnt something I keep learning: that I know very little about anything at all.

Yesterday, my colleague and I took our lunch to Mauerpark. She had bought a punnet of raspberries and we were munching them in the sun. A man with sun-tanned skin was loitering close by, watching us. After a while he lay down on the grass and curled up with his back to us.

Then suddenly we felt him looming. He asked, in Spanish, for a raspberry. When we gave him one, he disappeared.

Minutes later, a man in sunglasses, shorts and a baseball cap raced towards us.

“Was that guy just now hassling you?” he asked. He sounded panicked.

“No” He just wanted a raspberry,” my colleague said.

“Have you got everything?” the man said. “Quick, check for phones and money!”

We rummaged through our bags. Everything seemed to be intact.

“You sure?” the man asked. He was rushing onto the road.

“Wait,” we called after him. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, without stopping. “I’m a cop.”