World Apart

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.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

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.

Thoughts on leaving Ireland: Why emigration is my lifestyle choice

This time two weeks, if everything has gone to plan, I’ll be sipping beer alone in an east Berlin hostel.

I’m leaving Ireland for a few months to do an internship at Spiegel International, the English version of Germany’s Der Spiegel.

I’m one of the people Michael Noonan was referring to when he talked about emigration being a “Lifestyle choice”.

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.

As for the the three men that are in my life but that don’t know it they won’t miss me one bit.

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.

I might just have managed to see out my Quarter -Life Crisis. but I’m not promising anything.

And I’ll be blogging so that you can come to Berlin too, if you like.


Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. E-mail me privately with suggestions as to how to get LSB back for last year.

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