I get the U8 to work.
Berliners call it the Drogen Linie – a title it’s earned.
Men and women with drooping eyelids and sad shuffles inhabit the line.
On the platforms, people with trolleys containing their belongings shine torches into bins looking for bottles to recycle.
Once, a girl with black eyes got on my carriage. Her dark hair was pulled back loosely and she had on a flowing skirt. She was breast-feeding a big baby, who was clinging on to her very pregnant belly. The baby was playing with a copper coin.
It toppled to the carriage floor. The lady sitting opposite picked it up and handed it, almost apologetically, to the girl. She took it. Her fingernails – black with dirt. She was no more than fourteen.
I get out at Gesundbrunnen, in the middle of the line. In the eighteenth century, the area was famous for a spa dedicated to the Prussian Queen Louise.
When it joined the city of Berlin a century later, Gesundbrunnen became a working class district. Today, over half of its residents are people Germans describe as having a Migrationshintergrund, or “migrant background.”
The term includes people like me but in the media it’s almost synonymous with second and third generation Turks whose parents and grandparents arrived in the 1960’s and 70’s as Gastarbeiter – guest workers – to help build up post-war broken Germany.
The area is home to a sprawling mall called the “Gesundbrunnen Center.” It’s right next to the train station, which is also the starting point for tours of Berlin’s former bunkers.
The mall is always full. It is like every shopping centre, with an enormous H&M, plenty of stalls selling implausibly fragrant nuts and lots of red-faced children weeping tears of indignation as they are dragged from shop to shop.
To ease the suffering of those unfortunate children and their parents, an enterprising group has recently set up a pony-rental service on the ground floor. The ponies are life-sized stuffed animals on wheels. They come in three sizes and their prices vary accordingly.
The children glide along; their backs held straight and their expressions changing rapidly from concentration to joy. Their parents point smart phones at them to preserve the ride for posterity.
Close to the ponies-on-wheels there is a pet store. I go there to look at the guinea pigs. Earlier today, a sales assistant with pale skin and lots of piercings opened the snake cage to spray water inside. A woman wearing a headscarf looked on curiously.
“Are they poisonous?” the woman asked, pointing to two grotesque snakes coiled around each other, exposing their forked tongues every few moments.
“No. We don’t sell poisonous snakes,” the member of staff answered in a remarkable monotone.
The snakes are fed with dead white mice. I wonder if the store is supplied with dead mice or whether they simply taken them from the cages selling mice as pets. If the latter is the case, I wonder how – and where – the killing takes place.
On the street leading to my office, there is an unassuming and cheerful cake shop. It sells pieces of kiwi sponge for a euro and boasts a special blend of Arabic coffee. It’s family-run and open late. In the evenings when it’s quiet, the teenage daughters take care of the tills and bring you coffee. They seem well brought-up. One of them sports charmingly chipped red nail polish.
There are high-rise blocks of flats along the entire road. Chained absurdly to a lamppost outside one of the buildings are two plastic cars for toddlers.
None of it is my world. But sometimes I realise that being an outsider is where I feel most at home.
Insiders often create a comfortable “prison” for themselves, and by doing so often lose the discerning eye of an outsider.
“Prison” – what an interesting way to put it. But you are right – there’s something about knowing the walls around you.