We were in Kerry for a friend’s wedding and I was rekindling my love for the island.
“That cashier was lovely!” I exclaimed after buying éclairs in a newsagent in Killarney.
“I can’t believe they made us pancakes!” I said after the staff in our B&B allowed us to customize our breakfast order.
“Oh, and the milk is excellent too!” I added after taking a gulp to wash my pancake down.
It wasn’t just the food and people I was waxing lyrical about either.
“Just look at this Landschaft!” I said, as we strolled through Killarney National Park.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the mountains looming ahead of us and swathes of green all around.
As we continued along the path, we passed some bulls.
They were grazing lethargically, indifferent to their paradisal surroundings.
“Don’t you know how lucky you are?” I asked them. “Don’t you realise that you counterparts in factory farms would kill for this kind of outdoor, paleo lifestyle?”
But there was no reasoning with them.
They looked up briefly, before returning to their edible vegan carpet. One bull even rolled his eyes at me.
I recognized the display of disdain immediately. The kind reserved for outsiders with excessive enthusiasm for your native land.
I was taken aback.
After four years in Germany, had I really developed the unbridled exuberance of a foreigner? Had I become an Ausländer in my own country?
Desperate to stop the resurgence of an identity crisis, I decided to fight back.
“You’re the ones with notions!” I said to the offending animals. “You’ve no idea what the real world is like. When was the last time you filled out a tax return? Or worried about your pension? Or wondered about your heritage?”
They shuffled awkwardly. Then one by one, they turned away to face the mountains, their tails lolling easily in the breeze.
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.
One moment we were waiting for the 16A in grubby, familiar Camden Street and the next we were on the U7 to Spandau.
Berlin is different with him here.
I’ve had to stop sleeping in the shape of a large star fish.
I’ve had to allow cheese in the fridge.
And I’ve started becoming one of those people who complains when the lids of shampoo bottles aren’t replaced after use.
I used to spend my evenings munching Rittersport chocolate, scrolling through my Facebook feed and contemplating my existence.
Now we do that together.
Sometimes LSB laments the fact that he is arbeitslos.
The other day we saw a happy-looking postman in a green uniform on the subway. He was on a poster, recruiting.
I told LSB that my best ever job was being a postwoman in Rathgar in the run-up to Christmas. I got a bike and men’s overalls and everything. We noted down the number.
Today we went to an enormous Turkish market. First, I bought a sewing set, some elastic and six wooden buttons.
LSB advised me to haggle but I refused. Not for the first time that morning, I cursed my tentativeness. Instead, I slunk away from the rude man behind the stall to another whose face I preferred. He under-charged me for the buttons.
I felt completely vindicated.
I don’t need painted wooden buttons. But sometimes I fantasize about making my own dresses.
I have similar daydreams of baking apple pies and looking adorable on a bicycle.
Next I bought three mangoes, six avocados, two courgettes and a punnet of pears.
I was so pleased with my purchases that I dragged LSB into Kaiser’s so we could calculate how much we’d saved.
This evening, LSB told me gently that I hadn’t stopped talking about mangoes all day. I asked him if he understood what a bargain it was to get three mangoes for a euro and six avocados for two.
He said he did but his eyes told a different story.
They were glazed from having been at a computer for too long.
I looked at him carefully.
I might not be a doctor but I’ve often been praised for having a physician’s intuition. I knew immediately that he had joined WordPress.
As a savant, LSB naturally upstages me in most respects. But now that he’s started a hilarious photo blog, I’m more in his shadow than ever.
To make matters worse, he’s even threatened to start posting about “LSG.”
LSB’s arrival scene had been playing on loop in my head for several weeks. I would stand at the dingy arrivals hall at Schonefeld looking radiant. LSB would get off the plane and fly into my arms. We would embrace. He would vow to abandon his studies in Edinburgh with immediate effect. We would elope. Publishers would flock to our door offering him a job. If that didn’t happen, I would pick up enough freelance shifts to hire him as my domestic servant.
But my dreams were thwarted by wintry showers. The trains on the way to the airport were cancelled. LSB’s flight was due in at 12.40. I was shivering at a train station at the time. The plane had the audacity to land punctually. At 12.45 LSB called me.
“Katzi! I can’t believe you’re trying to dodge me. After all this time!”
“Did you not get my text?” I cried. “I’ll be there soon, promise.”
“Four months!” he said, sighing.
The S45 condescended to arrive. When it pulled in at Schoenefeld, I dashed like there was no tomorrow. I arrived panting and with a pile of snowy slush heaped on each of my boots. LSB was standing there, looking maddeningly nonchalant. “Oh you turned up then?” he said.
LSB and Lego snowman
I welcomed him with a punch.
LSB has aged gracefully since I last saw him in August. The highland air has been kind to his complexion and he even trimmed his beard in anticipation of our reunion. He still insists on wearing unsuitable canvas shoes in all weather and lists meeting Joe Duffy as the most momentous occasion of his life.
The highlight of LSB’s life to date
The last few days have been idyllic. We have been streaming Seventh Heaven online and pressing pause at opportune times. Reverend Eric Camden’s expression of brave resilience has been etched, again and again in our memories. Last night we listened to the Adrian Kennedy phone-show.
Sometimes we interrupt our analysis of the Camdens with weighty conversations about our future. When we get tired of that we go to the Christmas market and buy a bag of five Quark balls, which we share in an equitable ratio of 4 to me and 1 to LSB.
Sometimes we use our infinite wisdom and experience of travel to cast wistful judgement on the country we’ve left behind. Ireland has become homogeneous and backward since we left.
We wonder how the Catholic Church can still have such a hold. And we wonder if the recession will ever end.
Then we smile when we think about cosy nights in the pub with friends, Tayto crisps and the way Grafton Street twinkles at Christmas time.
We may have been temporarily evicted but it’s home, glorious home and the craic at Christmas will be almighty.
At 5 o’clock this morning, I found myself in a queue to get through security at Dublin airport. It was moving sluggishly, like a lazy snake. Every time it took a bend, I caught sight of a young man a few meters in front. He was nineteen or twenty and slightly lanky. He had a gentle face and blonde hair, which flopped a little to the side. He was crying.
At every bend his face grew sadder and when I saw him take out a crumpled tissue from the pocket of his jeans, I discovered tears in my eyes too. I wanted to reach over the barrier, touch his wrist and say “Skype is great, you know” but I couldn’t because the night before, when LSB had left me at my garden gate, I ran away up the stairs and to my toilet so nobody would see me crying.
I lost him after he went through security but he had a face and expression which personified every single Irish short story about grief and emigration I have read.
There were quite a few empty seats on my flight. I was on the aisle, with a space between me and a neat-looking man at the window programming things on his ipad. When the cabin lights were dimmed for take-off, I tried to turn my overhead reading light on but it was defective. The man stretched across and turned on the middle reading light for me. I thanked him and he smiled.
I’ve only been here a few hours but moving from the east of Berlin to the west is like ageing thirty-five years in a day. Gone are the punk bars and graffiti. Gone are the anarchist posters stuck to trees. It’s quieter, more leafy.
I was thinking this anyway, on my way from the S Bahn stop, on the lookout for a snack. I found a kebab joint and ordered a falafel sandwich. I sat down on a steel table outside, with my luggage wrapped around my feet.
The two men at the next table stared at me.
“Where were you on holiday?” the older one with a moustache asked.
I explained that I hadn’t been on holiday but was coming for work.
“There’s no work here,” he said.
“What are you drinking?”
He ordered me Turkish butter milk. It came in a yoghurt container and was full of salt and bubbles.
Image source: sweettoothcraving.blogspot.com
“Ever had this?”
“Where are you from?”
“How much is a kebab in Ireland?”
“We’re not German either. I’m Turkish and he’s Greek. We’ve been here thirty years. It’s not easy coming here new.”
They told me I would need a work visa if I didn’t want to work “Schwarz.” (The German language rather offensively refers to “schwarz” or “black” as the colour of transgression.)
I told them Ireland was in the EU.
“How much rent you paying?”
I told them.
“I could get you a flat to yourself for less.”
I gratefully declined.
“You living around here? That street there?”
I was arrested by his guess and didn’t deny it.
When he guessed the number I became frightened.
I told him I didn’t know yet.
“That street’s full of alcoholics. You could have a place to yourself for less. Who you staying with?”
I texted LSB and asked him to call me.
We spoke in Irish. I waited and waited. The Turkish man eventually got bored and left. The Greek stayed behind. I paid €2.50 for my falafel sandwich. The Turkish butter milk was on the house.
I intended to emigrate when I graduated in 2010 but I couldn’t afford it. After I did a TEFL course, which my parents paid for, I was lucky enough to get a job at the school where I trained.
I have loved this job and were I not young, passionate about writing and curious about the world I would do well to keep it.
I don’t agree with Eamonn Dunphy that Ireland is a dump. I agree with George Hook that this country gave him a “bloody good living”.
If we were in the middle of an economic boom I’d be in more of a rush to leave.
Because moving shakes you up, allows you to meet people that challenge how you think and forces you to define yourself within new parameters.
I’ve lived in the same house for 24 years. I know its every nook. When I come home, my father is where he is supposed to be. As I push open the gate, I look in the window and see the back of his head and his arms outstretched. From behind, it looks like he’s made a tent out of the Times newspaper and is holding it stubbornly in place because he has run out of pitching pegs. I hear clinks of plates in the kitchen. I smell his butter beans beginning to burn. I find my mother’s school-bag in the hall and hear her practising the Alto part to the piece of music she is singing in choir. When I come into the room she turns from the piano and tells me an amusing story about one of her pupils or something that she saw on the way to school.
In the mornings, I wake up and Áine Lawlor’s voice is like wind, willing me out of bed. All I can think about is how warm I am in my onesie and how early Áine must have to get up every single day. After a while I feel ashamed and curl into a foetal ball and roll out of bed.
I saw the man with long blonde hair and pools for eyes again today. His head was pushing down Harcourt Street, like a hound in slow motion. Last week I bought the Big Issue from a Romanian women in Rathmines, instead of from my friend outside Trinity. I haven’t seen him in a while but if I do, I will buy another copy. LSB has promised that he will buy each new issue from him while I am away. I know he will, because he always keeps his promises. And if he forgets, my face will appear on his computer screen as soon as he signs into Skype and I will ask him why he hasn’t done it yet. I am charming like that.
I’ll miss town on a Saturday. My vegetarian breakfasts at Cornucopia, where I spy on people who have nice haircuts, pretty coats and carry pocket books. I’ll miss John Gormley’s neat head and chiselled chin, which you can see in a frame hanging on the wall. I’ll miss the flea markets and co-ops which are beginning to blossom like a shy bride all over the city. I’ll miss the silent Falun Dafa-practising protesters, who stand around banners at Stephen’s Green with their eyes closed, drawing shapes in the air, uncannily in sync.
After the terrible things I have said about it, I’ll miss O’Connell Street. I’ll even miss the towering superfluous spike. Sometimes when I’m whizzing along on the U-Bahn gobbling up breaking news, I’ll think back to the times I felt sad when I passed the alcoholics who drank inside the pubs on Parnell Street at half eight in the morning. I’ll think back to Wednesday mornings, which are Dole days in the north inner city. I’ll remember the sorry queue of hunched figures in tracksuits waiting to get into the little green post office.
Sometimes, I’ll yearn for those moments when you’re waiting at a bus stop or sitting on a park bench and an old man or lady looks at you a little longer than they should and then decides that you are a safe person and talks to you about the weather or the recession or about when the bus should arrive.
I’ll miss the men and women who work in the charity shops on Camden Street and the type of lady that I overheard last week in the Cancer Society shop telling a customer that she couldn’t win an argument, let alone the National Lottery but that it doesn’t stop her from dreaming.
I will miss the -often irrational- indignation of the callers on Liveline. I will miss the ceaseless banter and inoffensive drizzle and the feeling I get of being a 1930’s maiden any time I’m in Neary’s Pub.
But I’ll be back. And I’ll have learnt how to live with a cat despite my prejudices and what it’s like to write to live instead of to live to write.