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.

Alone in Berlin: Part 1

At first it was exhilarating.

I wanted the hostel, where I stayed the first few nights, to be my home forever. I loved the anonymity of the place – the backpackers waiting for a leftover packet of pasta to boil, the discarded tea bags, the little laminated signs asking travellers to consider the environment before throwing away their rubbish.

There were two Asian-looking girls in the kitchen one evening. One had an American accent, the other was British. They had met at the hostel and now they were friends. The American wanted to go to “school” in Europe. The other nodded and made dinner.

Alone in Berlin, reading Alone in Berlin

In the evenings I bought a falafel sandwich or a slice of pizza on the main street which was soon to become my neighbourhood.

One morning — my first in Berlin, I took a bus tour of the city. On the top deck, a round lady with red-painted lips and peroxide hair gripped a microphone and gave a commentary of the city in English that was so broken that a tourist behind me muttered that he had more chance of understanding German. Her smile was fixed to her face like a stubborn mole, her face was wrinkled. If she had had no folds on her face, she would have looked like a doll. I knew she had grown up in east Germany. She learnt Russian at school. No west German tour guide would speak so little English.

I scribbled down the names of places that looked interesting from the bus. I saw pink water pipes all over the city, the president’s house, the parks, and a beautiful square.

I found my workplace and my heart jumped when I saw that it was five minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate. I found a little photo booth and got a picture taken for my student travel card. I followed the instructions for getting a passport photograph taken. “Don’t smile” said the machine. “You must not tilt your head, or obscure your face with your hair.”

I look so stony in the picture that weeks later, when the secretary at Spiegel looked at the card she said “but you are so cross!”

After I checked into my hostel on that first night, I went out to try to find the apartment I would be moving in to.
It wasn’t far from the hostel. It was late February and it was dark. I approached the flat from a direction I never walk now. I found the shoe shop and the children’s book store that Google Maps had promised me. The street was quiet and I was alone.

Obeying The Machine

I found the number and glanced up at the building. It was too dark to see anything.

I walked past a church, back to the main street. Next to my hostel was a photocopying shop and a video store. All rentals one euro. There was a large adult movie section on display in the window.

The day before I moved into my new flat, I met a book vendor outside Humboldt University. He had wild white hair and a black hat. He said: “You don’t think I have mornings when I wake up and say ‘Fuck this shit. I don’t want to stand at this fucking table selling books all day? And then you know what? I see children laughing and playing and nothing matters any more.”

I nodded at him, I think I smiled. I thought we were the only two people in the city. The sky turned midnight blue and the TV tower was lit up in the distance. I bought a book called “Der Steppenwolf”. The cover is blue and there are bits of paper still stuffed inside a page in the middle of the book, where I stopped reading it.

As the lights came on and I got into a grubby underground train, something danced in my brain. Now I realise it was the taste of freedom.

How I missed out on visiting the Biggest Chocolate House in the World

This afternoon, a red-faced Berliner with a moustache reprimanded me for committing a traffic offense on Unter den Linden. My crime: staying put when I saw the red man.

I know that there are a lot of things I don’t understand. Many of them I have written about here before.

But of all the enigmas with which I have battled, nothing remains as clandestine as the reason for pedestrian traffic lights occurring at the same spot as a zebra crossing.

Granted I had been walking along the narrow central stretch of the beautiful tree-lined promenade, instead of the wide pavements designed for walkers, but I had good reason for it. From the middle, I had a wonderful view of both the Victory Column ahead, and the Brandenburg Gate behind.

I had stopped with the intention of crossing over to have a look at the Russian war memorial. I almost pulled a muscle in my neck with all the looking left, then right, then left again I was doing. Ligaments have the right to rebel when called into use after periods of benign neglect.
It may have been a zebra crossing, but the light was red.

To be honest, I was charmed by the iconic red traffic man, with his wide hat and purposeful stance. Even if he had been green, I probably would have stopped to stare. Anyway, something about my immobility irked the balding motorist with whiskers sprouting from his nose. He beeped and growled at me as he drove past.

On I wandered down Unter den Linden anyway and turned off at the corner to have a look at the Schloss Belvue, the residence of the new Federal President, Joachim Gauck. On Monday, when I took a bus tour of the city, the lady guide quipped that it was Germany’s “White House”.
I found it pleasant to look at and unusually unguarded. You’d know it was a ceremonial role.

When I got to the end of Unter den Linden, I reached the Siegessäule or “Victory Column”. This monstrous tower was erected to celebrate defeats first against Denmark, then the Prussians and then Austria. I remembered that the guide had mentioned the number of steps to the top but I had promptly forgotten the number, which is in line with my tendency to not see the trees for the wood.

It didn’t matter. As I was climbing higher and higher up the spiral staircase, I considered the number to be infinite. With each loop, I looked upwards with expectation and to my horror found the distance yet to be conquered to be increasing.

At one point, I stopped and considered the possibility of failure. After all, if the column celebrated success over adversaries, I may as well be monument to its victory over foreign invaders.

As I was gazing upward into the infinite abyss, I embarrassingly caught the eye of a German champion who had made it and was gazing patronisingly downwards. Her laugh echoed down at me and I boomed a nervous one back.

As I climbed higher and higher I was struck powerfully by my absolute solitude. If I were to fall, nobody would know. The only people to accompany me during my last breaths would be a group of exuberant southern Germans too busy in the big smoke to care, and a Spanish couple, so visibly in love, with their linked arms and communal tickling, that my death might even pass them by.

I huffed and I puffed and I made it. I had a breath-taking view of the city covered in mist. The TV tower to the east fought with the clouds and together they looked like a clumsy mass of candy floss.

Church steeples and colourful concrete blocks, and in between a glass dome, or a power station: the city’s skyline is a muddled testament to its troubled history.

I took a few photos and implored an Italian man to take my picture.

Sieger!

That’s the funny thing about travelling without companions; you’re much more forward about approaching people, even if you risk inferring that you wish to become a shareholder of Sparda bank.

After I had made it down safely, I sat at the base of the Victory Column and considered my next move. I could go to the Zoo, but I probably wouldn’t have time to see all of the 15,000 species of animals. Or I could go to the Pergamon museum, but I wouldn’t have time to look at every specimen of Athenian artefact on display.

So I thought I might as well head west back down Unter den Linden and check out the beautiful Gendarmen Square, which I had read about in my trusty guide.

Alas, that plan was destined to fail.

I had just reached Humboldt university when I spotted a bookstall set up outside. Given that I’ve a penchant for independent booksellers, I wandered over to browse the titles.

I picked up a hardback copy of Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf and a translation of Gabriel Garcua Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Lonelienss.

The vendor, a bearded man with glasses and wearing a black hat, took them from me and said: “Ich bin beeindruckt”.

I smiled. He had told me he was impressed with my selection.

This man reminded me of the type of person I thought I would miss from Ireland.

He was an unconventional and incessant talker, belligerent one moment and benign the next.

He talked to me about socialism and National Socialism, about Gunther Grass and Johann Goethe, about the student movement of the 1960’s, and about anti-Americanism; about a Japanese girl he had sworn at because she had dared haggle over a Hermann Hesse book and about a journalist at the Berliner Morgen Zeitung, who gives him hundreds of newly-released titles for free because he is inundated with copies to review.

The man was an intriguing blend of madness and intellect. His depth of knowledge on all matters of political, historical and cultural importance impressed me, his unflappable loquaciousness did not.

I was making polite one or two word responses to his tirade against anti-intellectualism, when a lady with a tight bun and pursed lips interrupted.

The direct translation of what she said was:

“Would you ever give me some attention and quit your incessant blabber about nothing?”

He didn’t so much as glance in her direction when he beamed at me and said “This lady thinks I talk too much. She’s right!”

I tried to make a dash as he was completing her transaction but he continued to speak,now about Theo Adorno, looking me directly in the eye.

It was getting dark.

“I would like to introduce you to my friend in the Berliner Morgen Zeitung”, he said. “I am absolutely certain he would fall instantly in love with you. He’s a very brilliant man; a philosopher”.

“That’s impressive”, I mumbled politely.

“He is in his sixties”, he added, by way of explanation.

After one hour and five minutes, he leaned over and shook my hand.
“You’ll come back, won’t you?”, he asked.

“Yes”, I said.

Because I feel his gift of the gab might be newsworthy.

When I returned home late this evening I told my flatmate what had delayed me.

“Why didn’t you just say you had to go?”, he asked.

“Because it was utterly impossible!”, I cried.

“Then you should have just thrown a book at him”.

To add to my woes, I saw someone on the U Bahn today with my totally unique Rittersport chocolate bag. And as if it couldn’t get any worse, I just googled Gendarmenmarkt and found that it is home to the biggest chocolate house in the world.