The Devil you don’t know

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

I thought LSB might be missing Edinburgh’s hills, so I decided to take him up “Teufelsberg,” or “The Devil’s Mountain,” to see a Cold War spy station that is crumbling to pieces.

The station is surrounded by a fence. Last time I was there, I clambered through a hole in it. Inside there was a vast spy column and a huge building, both falling apart. And graffiti, everywhere. And gaping holes in the concrete floors. Yellow felt lining and rusty bicycles lay strewn on the ground.

This time, all the holes in the fence were closed up. We walked around and around and thought about making our own.

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

Suddenly we encountered a commotion.

There’s nothing I like more than a commotion.

A man dressed in camouflage gear and a green beret was standing by steel gates, barring entry to the facility. He had his chest puffed out.

A group of tourists were standing by the fence, fretting. Their friend was inside the facility and he was not answering his phone.

“Oh my God, we need to get him out,” said one.

“Dude, don’t worry, he’s out of battery,” said another.

“Hi,” I said, “what’s going on?”

“These guys won’t let us in unless we pay €7,” one of them told me. “But we think they’re dodgy.”

I took a closer look. Three men were stationed in a triangle outside the gates.

Apart from the one with the green beret, there was a lad of about nineteen. He was wearing baggy jeans and a cap. Another man in a brown jacket was standing very still and watching us from a tree.

Our conversation took place in English.

“This is complete bullshit,” said one of the tourists. “These guys are just trying to make money.”

“I like the guy’s beret,” said another. “He’s sure playing the part.”

The man in the green beret kept his chest puffed out and gazed ahead with steely resolve. When he was asked why we couldn’t enter without paying he said “It’s patented.”

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

I’ve never been in a fight but something in the air felt like one was brewing.

I caught the eye of the youngster in the cap. He had a harmless, roguish face. I took a liking to him though I suspected he was a criminal. He didn’t speak much English. He struggled to explain that the facility was now managed by a really cool dude and that it wasn’t safe to go inside, but for €7, we could take a tour.

I startled him by breaking into German.

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “Why can’t we go in like before?”

“Dude,” he said. “I know it kind of blows but you see, it’s not really safe to go in.”

“Really?” I said. “But it’s safe if you pay?”

He looked sheepish.

“No you see, you go in for a tour,” he said finally.

“I see,” I said. “How did you get this ‘job’?”

“I’m friends with these guys you see. I used to come here all the time and I loved it. And now I’m training to be a gardener and this cool guy is doing up the place and that’s how I got involved.”

“Who is this guy?”

My last visit to Teufelsberg

My last visit to Teufelsberg

“Shalmon Abraham.”

“And he is your boss?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Can I Google him?”

“Oh, I never said that,” he said, looking at my feet. “By the way, I really love your shoes.”

“Thanks,” I said. (I got them in a vintage store in Rathmines.)

We chatted some more. My new criminal friend had been to Ireland. He said he liked the sheep and had visited Belfast.

Meanwhile, there was more commotion. The group of tourists said they were calling the police but the man in the green beret said he would call them first.

Police arrive and speak to man in green beret

Police arrive and speak to man in green beret

So he did.

LSB and I stayed on scene, chatting to the tourists and to the youngster from the other camp who had admired my shoes.

“You know, I really did use to like coming here to hang out too,” he said. “I’m just kind of on the other side now.”

It was like Romeo and Juliet.

Suddenly a man and a little girl walked out of the facility, accompanied by a petite, gamine French girl.

'Shalmon Abraham' speaks to two film-makers and French 'tour guide'

‘Shalmon Abraham’ speaks to two film-makers and French ‘tour guide’

“Hey man,” my possibly-criminal friend said to the man. “How’d you enjoy the tour?”

“She didn’t say a word,” the man said, motioning to the girl. “Barely even when I asked her a question!”

A little while later, a police car drove up the hill.

I decided this was a breaking news situation so I retreated close to a hedge to take some pictures.

A policewoman got out of the car and had a talk with Mr Green Beret. A policeman talked to the tourists, whose friend had meanwhile emerged unharmed from the facility.

Then a man in a white body suit appeared.

“That’s Shalmon Abraham,” said my new friend.

Shalmon Abraham did not take off his mask when talking to the police.

Police talk to tourists

Police talk to tourists

I asked the policewoman if the facility was really “patented.” She said it was.

I asked her when. She told me years ago.

I said I had been here a year ago and had encountered no unofficial looking men dressed in military gear barring my entrance.

She said that was strange.

I took some more pictures. Then LSB and I climbed another hill.

When we got to the top, he said “Let’s charge €6.50. We’ll undercut them!”

At home, we Googled Shalam Abraham. He exists (under is nuclear power suit). He’s a 28 year-old artist. And evidently, he has friends in high places.

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Vienna: “Clocking” In

It’s 8 am and the Danube is the colour my father’s Wellington boots used to be. I’m sitting by the window in my pyjamas while LSB sleeps curled to the side with his mouth slightly open. By the riverside, joggers in white hot-pants are battling the heat. Every so often a crow takes flight and I watch its shadow glide effortlessly over the water. A white cruise ship had just gone by. In the distance is a gigantic Ferris wheel.

View from where I’m writing

LSB and I arrived in Vienna on Saturday evening, worse for wear. We had spent the previous night in a cocktail bar in Kreuzberg and arrived home at 5 am to finish off the packing, only to rise again at 7, to make our way to the train station.

Four months of my life amounted to two suitcases and five bags. I had winter coats, summer dresses, an obscene amount of books and sentimental rubbish I cannot throw away. LSB was heroic in lugging so much of my existence on his shoulders.

We sat in a stuffy train compartment with a German couple and their teenage son. I held a poorly-packed plastic bag on my lap and fell asleep, uncomfortably, with my head resting on a damp towel at the top of the bag. I jolted awake suddenly, with the terrifying sense that everybody’s attention was directed upon me.

I became aware of a continuous beeping sound, the kind associated with either a bomb or a digital timepiece. “It’s coming from around here,” said the woman, body-searching her teenage son but with her eyes still on me. I maintained a rightful expression of innocent curiosity. I peeked into my bags and shook my head quizically, keen to share in the bewilderment but even keener to return my head to my damp and malodorous pillow. I was positive I hadn’t packed a bomb.

The beeping continued and so did the search. The woman put her ear under my seat and said, “There! It’s coming from that bag.”

With the last strength my feeble arms could muster, I swept the offending carrier onto my lap. The beeping became louder. LSB, who at the time had been in the corridor by the window admiring some charming north German village or other, peered into the compartment at the commotion. He looked bemused.

I rummaged awkwardly through loose batteries, postcards, underwear and socks. When I saw LSB, I motioned for him to come over. I dumped the bag on him, he left the compartment, I slid the door closed.

Silence.

The German couple looked at me kindly and tried to mask their triumph.

A little while later, LSB returned, clutching a black alarm clock which I could have sworn I had never encountered before.

The couple laughed, their son smirked and I protested feebly, “I’ve never seen it before!”

On mature reflection, I realised it was the alarm clock my mother had packed for me before I left but which I hadn’t used since my very first night in Berlin, when I decided it was defective.

In four months, the alarm clock had failed to announce its continued existence. Evidently, I had stuffed it in the corner of a bag and forgotten about it, relying instead on the unhygienic house cat to wake me up. I can only assume that it had been stewing, furious at my neglect for the past four months, and had plotted the whole thing.

While I have been writing this, LSB has woken up and fallen back asleep. Every so often, he scratches the back of his leg with his other foot. Now on the river bank, two dogs on the same lead have been let loose by their owner. They are playing together and getting themselves in a tangle. And a lady in blue pants is jogging by.

Ich bin angekommen!

So here I am alone in a hostel in east Berlin, munching on Rittersport (Knusperkeks flavour) chocolate. The original plan was to sit alone drinking beer, but when I checked in I was presented with a formidable list of “Hausregeln” (or “House Rules”). One of them said that drinking alcohol in the dorms was prohibited. Dejected, I scrawled “Kate Katharina” in the appropriate place and signed my humble plan away.

So now it’s just me, the single square of chocolate that’s left and a potted plant with spindly leaves, which greeted me from the window sill when I arrived.

Earlier when I got off the plane and into the arrivals hall at Schönefeld, I set eyes on a peculiarly tall youngster. He was dressed all in white – in a baggy tracksuit and matching pristine cap (which he was wearing backwards). He was holding an artificial bunch of roses upside down. I thought he might have jumped out of one of Eminem’s music videos, but then it occurred to me that it might be LSB in disguise.

Given his tendency towards deceit and his elaborate plan to surprise me for Valentine’s Day again this year, I thought it was reasonably plausible that he had taken a night flight after we parted ways yesterday (underneath Ranelagh Luas Bridge) in order to welcome me in Berlin.

I looked over expectantly but the rapper-romancer was oblivious to me. There was nothing for it but to continue my journey to the Airport train station.

My going-away gifts for LSB


Schönefeld airport reminded me much more of Ireland than the swanky Terminal 2 in Dublin. It’s a modest building, and you collect your luggage from a sluggish conveyor belt in cramped space. While you’re waiting for it, entertainment comes on a screen which shows the three-day weather forecast, the business news and an advertisement for a back massage clinic in continuous rotation. It had a charming higgledy-piggledy feel which made me feel right at home.
While I was yanking my unobliging cases through the walkway on the way to the trains, I passed a man lurking about holding a sign that read “Need ticket” in neat black biro print. Some kind lady stopped to give him change. I wondered how he had landed there.

I was happily prepared to soak up my first impressions of Berliners on the S9 to Friedrichshain. I even asked the train driver, a man in his fifties with half his face taken up by a magnificent curly grey beard, if I was on the right line. I was. When I asked if he stopped at Frankfurter Allé, he paused dramatically, so that I might think I was way off.

Then he grinned and said “Ja, da fahre ich hin”.

I could have been on Dublin bus.

My mum told me that Berliners are known to have a sharp sense of humour, that can be cutting at times. It’s called the “Berliner Schautze” (the Berlin Snout). More of that in future posts.

Having taken a seat on the S9, I stared at the people around me, as I have the bad habit of doing. Opposite me sat a lady with a nest of red hair that concluded in a limp tail that looped around her left shoulder. She was wearing sunglasses and orange and blue snow boots and got off at a stop which translates as “Tree School”.

I paused to consider what kind of things young saplings might need to learn but was stumped after I came up with dendrochronology.

An Australian lady with wavy blonde hair and a nose piercing was reading an academic paper with the title “The roots of gender inequality in Government”. She was marking the important bits with a yellow highlighter.

Unfortunately, my desire to get an authentic flavour of Berlin was thwarted by a group of noisy Irish students who had also been on my flight. They were talking loudly about who they were “shifting”, about the strapless tops they’d bought in Penneys and about the RTE player.

I sighed.

When I got off, I was immediately confronted by a murmuring drug addict looking for money. On the way to the hostel I passed a man lying on a few blankets with a broken shopping trolley and two large dogs for company. A few yards up a homeless woman, her face distorted by drug use, was muttering to herself. It was surreal to hear the language of drug abuse and poverty being spoken in German. I don’t know what I expected. They couldn’t all have a flat Dublin drawl.

It was far from the fairytale villages I know from Bavaria but it was exciting, with cars whizzing by, darkness beginning to descend and the scores of pizzerias and kebab shops tempting me to dinner.

As I type my eyes are becoming heavy. I’m installed cosily beside a radiator at a desk nestled in the corner of my little private room, which is attached to a four-bed dorm. Impressively, I’ve already made a friend. We met in the kitchen. I had my mouth full of falafels when he walked in.

His name is Tom. He’s forty-six and I saved him from burning his stew. He’d popped out of the hostel kitchen muttering something about “missing the vital ingredient” and left the pot unattended.
When he came back bearing a bottle of wine, I was dealing with the cauldron, where bubbles had begun to burst at the brim.

Me and my falafel.

So we had a chat over dinner and he told me that I had a distinct gypsy vibe. My eyes and the shape of my face, he said. I lauded his perception. After all, I recently found out that all of the women in my family have rare mitochondrial DNA associated with the Roma tribe. He said that he definitely wouldn’t have put me as either Irish or German. Russian perhaps, or Polish.

Just as well I’m living in east Berlin, I suppose. My guidebook charmingly describes Friedrichshain as “a traditionally rather dowdy working-class district which is increasingly being discovered by the well-to. I’ve a feeling I’ll fit right in.

Now, where can I recycle my Rittersport Knusperkeks wrapper?