The Old Man Who Couldn’t Stop Falling

I’m back: reanimated, restored, relieved! I’m still showering in the dark and when I came home from work in the early hours of this morning, I had to take care not to stumble over the enormous extension cable that snakes its way from a socket in the hallway all the way to the fridge.  But I can deal with fumbling for shampoo bottles and peeing by torchlight if I have the means to share the experience with the world.

Last week I told you about a spindly old man and his giant dog.  Today’s story is not so empowering. It’s about an old man, without a dog.

I was walking home from work the other evening.  It was dark and I was on a quiet, dimly lit road. In the distance I could make out the shadow of a figure  on the ground. Their arms were jerking and outstretched as if having a seizure.

As I got closer, I found an old man with his chin slumped to his chest, trying to hoist himself up without success. I stopped, as did the man who had been walking a few paces in front of me.

I came closer. “Is everything okay?” I asked redundantly.

The old man’s eyes slowly turned to me. They were pale blue and very round. It took him some time to register the question and when he did his expression became pained and he said slowly “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. What have I done now?”

I was gentle. “It happens to all of us.”

“Oh shit, oh shit. I always mess everything up. My whole life is a mess.”

I tried to find out whether he was hurt.

He couldn’t answer my question and kept saying  “I’ve messed it all up. My whole life is a misery.”

“Do you live near here?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“Do you live in this house?” I said, pointing to number 23, which he was leaned against.

Berlin can be the loneliest of places too. I took this picture after spending St Patrick’s Day alone last year.

“Yeah.” His gaze wandered slowly around.

“Do you have a key?”

Silence.

He swayed a little.

Suddenly, with a bolt of energy that came from nowhere the old man sprung to his feet. He stumbled wildly and before I could get to him, fell forward with full force. I could hear a crack as his head hit the pavement.

Miraculously, the fall seemed not to affect him. My heart was beating very fast. I brought him over to sit on the doorstep. The old man smelt of vodka.

I called an ambulance.

The other man who’d stopped was about eighteen or nineteen. He was hovering uncomfortably and said very little. He might not have know it, but I was immensely grateful for his presence.

The old man made more wild attempts to get to his feet and fell again. While we were waiting for the ambulance to come, a young couple stopped to see if they could help. The girl was very pretty and very kind. She put her arm around the old man. Her boyfriend was more detached and said simply and without judgement, “Alcohol’s not the answer to your problems, is it?”

“You’re right,” said the old man. “You’re right.”

He sighed. “I’ve messed up my relationships. I’ve messed up my life.”

His gaze flitted intermittently to each of our faces.

“And then this happens,” he said. “And you meet people.”

The ambulance came promptly and a big man in a security vest said cheerfully,

“Now, what’s the problem here?”

It was a question which would take the sad old man years to answer.

The ambulance man hoisted him up.

The old man was so unsteady on his feet that it looked as if they were dancing all the way to the ambulance.

The Art of Being Alone

I’ve got what many of you might envy: a tonne of free time in Berlin.

Just imagine: I’m at leisure in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I’ve no one to answer to, no pressing business to attend to and no  miscreant alarm clock  ripping me from my slumbers.

Kate Katharina: a lady of leisure? image source: store.craftsbyveronica.com

Bliss?

Not so much. The exhilaration I felt the first time I arrived in the city has dissipated. I know my way around and though I’m still impressed by the public transport, travelling on the underground no longer gives me butterflies.

My days are clumsily punctuated by grocery shopping, small errands and the quest for personal improvement.

When I go grocery shopping, I invest a lot of energy into not falling  for any of the tricks I learnt about in the Psychology of Economics class I took at college. I evaluate the price of items per kilogram, I immediately avoid all products at eye level and cast my gaze downwards to where the discounted goods tend to be displayed. After all, if there’s one thing I remember from that course, it’s the mantra, “Eye level is buy level.”

Shortly before my life began to be defined by trips to my local discounters, I organised my days around navigating German bureaucracy. It was so horrifying that I considered dedicating a series of posts to it but I’ve since concluded that writing about it might trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress. In summary, German bureaucracy is a delightful contrivance, designed to test the upper limits of patience, sanity and cognition. Now that I am officially registered extant, have been issued with a tax number and opened a bank account, I feel equipped to take on any challenge.

If only one would present itself.

Since I am unemployed (happily only temporarily), and know very few people here, I am trying desperately to channel my social deficit into intellectual pursuit.

I’ve re-ignited my passion for Arabic.  I sit at my desk with a little notebook and take down the Arabic word of the day on Youtube and practise making guttural sounds when I am sure my flatmates aren’t within hearing distance. I’m getting better.

I’ve read a few books.

I’ve got out at underground stops I select on a whim to explore new parts of town.

I’ve even started running and enrolled in a yoga class. And the other day, I went on a picnic alone. I thought it would be idyllic.

My destination was a historical palace with beautiful gardens that border a colossal park. On the day of my picnic it was very warm. I packed my Pocahontas towel along with a lunch box full of grapes and a tofu sandwich.

I found a beautiful spot beside a little lake. I rolled up my hippy pants, took out my food and began to read my book. Beautiful solitude, I was thinking to myself. How lucky I am to be wedged between a palace and a lake, munching on a soggy but delicious tofu sandwich.

Suddenly I sensed a presence behind me.  “Good Afternoon” said a voice.

I turned around to find a self-important middle-aged man on a bicycle pointing at me. “Sie befinden sich jetzt im Barock Garten, junge Dame!” Since I find it amusing to translate German literally and will be fired if I do it when working in TV, I’ll do so now. What the man said was “You are now situated in the Baroque garden, young Madam.”

I lost a piece of tofu in my fright. He continued. “You are not permitted to lounge in such an area.”

Since I am by nature irrationally apologetic, I said I was terribly sorry. I gathered up my stuff and made my way through the park. He nodded at me grimly and cycled away.

I set up camp on a little patch of grass beside a bench and close to the river Spree. I was there for about half and hour and I was ripping through my book. The sun was making me sleepy.

My picnic spot. Image source: http://www.german-architecture-info.net

Tyres ground to a halt behind me. “Good Afternoon, young Madam.” Dread shot through me. I turned around. We recognised each other instantly. “You again!”

I nodded.

“You find yourself at this time in the Louisen Garten, officially attached to the palace of Charlottenburg. This is a restricted area, unsuited to lounging. You must move along.”

“Where to?” I asked. This time I was not as apologetic.

“Beyond that far bridge, you will find an area dedicated to the general public.”

I packed up my things and made my way to the bridge.

On the way I spotted several other people enjoying the sun. The park warden called over to me from his bicycle. “Don’t get any ideas from these loungers, young Madam. They are also in prohibited areas and will be moving along shortly.”

He cycled up to a mother feeding her baby. “Young mother, you find yourself in the Luisen Garten!”

She looked bewildered. As did the other people he approached. I was close enough to see him point at me and call out, “Follow that young lady, who will lead you to an acceptable lounging area.”

Suddenly I was leading a pack of transgressors. When I had crossed the bridge, I found the “lounging area.” The grass rose up to my knees. It was an unpromising destination for the pilgrims I was guiding but it was sanctioned by the park warden. I sighed and laid down my Pocahontas towel for a third time.

And then I thought that maybe what I’m learning here has nothing to do with Arabic, or fitness or journalism. With every empty day that passes, I’m being schooled in the art of being alone.

A Hangover, a Prayer and a Pond

I was slumped on a bench in Vienna Stadtpark a couple of days ago, hungover, watching ducks in a pond. A black coot swam over to a drake and unprovoked, nipped it in the buttocks. The drake spun around to face his aggressor, then thought the better of it and glided away.

On the bench to my left, a girl was sitting alone, smiling to herself. She was waif-like and innocent-looking with long brown hair and large eyes. She seemed unusually still.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, two girls clutching tiny pads of paper approached her. They began very quietly, to question her. All the time the girl murmured her answers, she kept the little otherworldly smile on her lips. The others were noting down her answers and nodding sympathetically; their faces full of vivid reassurance. I couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying.

The air was cooler than it had been the last few days.

Suddenly a gust of wind snatched some sheets of paper from the girls’ grip. They flew up into the air and landed in the pond. The girls gasped, turned, stretched out their arms, laughed, then gave up and pointed helplessly at the white specks as they dispersed across the water.

I forgot about them for a while because I was distracted by a lady on the other side of me playing with her grandson. He was bouncing on her knee and laughing. I caught the lady’s eye and smiled. She had auburn hair and an elegant face. After a little while, her daughter came back. “Look,” she’s back, the older lady told the baby, turning him so that he faced his mother. He beamed and she sat down beside him and rubbed his nose.

I looked back at the three girls beside me. They had closed their eyes and were speaking to God. All I could hear was the address “Herr.” Soon it was over, and the two girls disappeared. The original one remained on the bench, sitting bolt upright, her expression and posture unchanged. Though it was pasted to her face, her smile had an ephemeral quality. She had been touched.

The grandmother and her daughter laid the baby between them and together changed his nappy. They couldn’t have looked any happier. The pleasure they took from the task was nourishing.

As I was leaving the park, I passed a man wearing a red plastic nose, a pair of plastic glasses and a floppy hat. He was dipping a folded piece of rope into a bucket of soapy water and blowing giant bubbles. A little girl was clapping her hands and chasing them before they disappeared into the gravel on the ground.

I wandered home and some of the guilty hollowness left by the hangover was gone.

The Ladybird

I once started crying in a falafel joint  in Philadelphia because I saw a father upbraid his son for not doing well at school.  He spat when he spoke, his wife pursed her lips and his sister said “I’d help you if I were in big kid school.” It was too much for me to watch. A couple of tears landed in my hummus.

And on Tuesday night, just outside the opera house in Vienna, I gave money to a woman on a crutch who told me she had lost her wallet, had already reported it to the police and just needed a fare to get the train home. I suspended disbelief.

If that wasn’t enough, when I went to see the King’s Speech with LSB, I was in such a state afterwards that I refused to leave the cinema in case I met somebody I knew.

You see, I have a delicate sensibility.

I also like ladybirds, a lot.

So you can imagine my reaction when one landed on my toe last Sunday afternoon. I was sitting on a  bench in a beautiful Viennese park. The sun was scalding me, my eyes were closed and I felt something brush against my toe.  I was preparing to flick the offending creature away when LSB said “Look, Katzi!”

The ladybird that landed on my foot

I looked down and squealed with delight. There it was – a beautiful, well-rounded specimen with chunky spots and a confident crawl. I watched it and asked LSB to take a picture to preserve for posterity.

After some time, it ambled away contentedly to a stretch of pathway. I watched it go a little sadly. Then all of a sudden a wave of people passed by directly in front of me, completely obscuring my view of the ladybird.

“Oh no, no, no, no!” I cried.

LSB winced. “Don’t look, Katzi.”

I had to.

It had been trodden on but it was still alive, flailing.

I rushed to it. Some of its legs were crushed. I tried to encourage it onto a newspaper in my hand. It would not move.

I stayed there a while. I felt I was being watched but I didn’t feel like looking up.

Then a woman’s voice said to me, “The newspaper won’t work. Try your finger!”

I looked up to find a middle-aged lady with brown curls and a loose blouse peering down at me.

I took her advice but it didn’t work. I told her that the ladybird had been stepped on.

“Oh well that’s the end of him then,” she said, smiling apologetically before walking away.

I returned to the bench and watched the bug. It had stopped moving.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do, Katzi,” said LSB sadly. “But it wasn’t your fault.”

I got down on my knees and looked at it again carefully.

The lady came back. She licked her finger, scooped the ladybird up and plopped it in my hand.

“That’s how you do it,” she said.

I was startled but grateful. LSB laughed a little.

The ladybird moved.

“It’s alive!” I cried.

It began to push forward with its two undamaged legs.

I set it down on a leaf at the edge of a lawn. It moved forward a little and then toppled over onto its back. I turned it back over.

This happened a few times. Then LSB said, “Katzi, this time let it try on its own.”

That was wisdom and my first insight into my shortcomings as a future parent.

It managed to turn itself over. There was no guarantee that it would master the concrete ledge onto the lawn. But it was time to go.

“It wasn’t your fault,” said LSB again.

Spinning in my ladybird costume, Halloween 2008 with a charming Tinkerbell

Since then I have seen several crushed ladybirds on the pavement.

But yesterday, while I was swimming in the Danube, I spotted a ladybird in the water.

Without thinking, I scooped it up into both my hands and brought it to safety.

Even more impressively, today I ate a falafel sandwich and nothing about it or my surroundings offended my sensibilities.

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.

A quarter-life crisis, a Familienfest, the land of the free, my first real job.. Here are the highlights of 2011

January

I was: unemployed, restless, devilish

What I said: “I have few accomplishments to recommend me; I cannot draw, my recitals on the pianoforte are clumsy at best and I have neither a talent for embroidery nor the gift of graceful movement. The one area in which, after much searching, I have found myself to excel is in the ability to produce plausible-sounding Gibberish at will…” more

February

I: found a job, was still devilish.

What I said: “I check my e-mail before going to sleep and there’s a Valentine e-card in from LSB! I think: “Aw, what a sweetie”. I open it up only to find a Fine Gael cartoon canvasser tell me that “Labour are red, Fine Gael are blue, we won’t raise your taxes like they want to do”. Then he winks and looks shiftily (seductively?) to the side. I send one to every member of my family signing it Eoghan Murphy xxx, the name of the Fine Gael candidate in my constituency who topped 98 fm’s “hottest election poster boy” poll…” more

March

I: had a quarter-life crisis

What I said: “There was once a raven-haired fortune teller who, tracing her forefinger over my palm, told me that I would live to be in my nineties. I was alarmed when I realised some time ago that I had reached quarter age in spite of her promise of longevity. This realisation, coupled with acute post-graduation panic (PGP) has propelled me to a life crisis…” more

April

I: tried to forget about my Quarter Life Crisis by taking a trip to Sligo with LSB

What I said: “We’re leaning against a stony wall by the riverbank. I’m unzipping my camera case gingerly because I want to remember the stillness and his solitude when a blonde-haired man of about thirty staggers, stony-eyed towards us.
“Don’t you dare take my picture”, he yells. “You’ve no right, you sons of bitches. You’ve no fucking right at all”…” more

May

I: thought about my younger and more vulnerable years.

What I said: “I was 16 and practically the same but for a hideous mane of long, straggly brown hair with orange highlights. I had just finished struggling through The Satanic Verses. I’d taken it to Germany where I spent many a journey on slow trains, puff-puff-puffing their way through the Bavarian countryside, with the battered book on my knee, trying to make sense of it all. Bizarrely-named angels, and evil and the Muslims didn’t like it: it went something like that…” more

June

I: took up a political cause

What I said: “As they beat their hammers on their oak writing tables and whisper “Objection” in advance of September’s Referendum, the twenty-two dissenters will inevitably privately concede that the scrapping of Article 35.5 represents good riddance to bad rubbish. Objection over-ruled…” more

July

I: thought about pens and penises

What I said: “Unless it’s accepted as equally scandalous that the proportion of male nurses is equivalent to that of female corporate executives, a discussion of gender can never be detached from a social weighting in favour of money…” more

August

I: attended the annual Familienfest

What I said: “As I was tucking into my vegetable bags (or Gemuse Taschen) I had a sudden sinking feeling: I had forgotten to pick up the bag of black sausages!…” more

September

I: admitted that I don’t have the first clue about the economic crisis

What I said: “Every weekday morning, I brush my teeth while listening to the business news on Morning Ireland. Once the weather comes on, I know it’s time to spit…” more

October

I: realised that there’s nothing quite like an Irish Presidential election.

What I said: “The struggle for the presidential candidates to find many more words than the Queen of England herself during the “Irish Language” debate revealed the incongruities that are still gripping this little nation, which – desperate for an export-driven recovery from economic ruin- continues to struggle with its own identity…” more

November

I: went to America.

What I said: “Subways in New York are grubby places. They are for poor people and for people who read large books with city library stamps printed on their spines…” more

December

I: finished learning the Arabic alphabet!

What I said ““That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.”… more

………………………………………………………..

Thank you all so much for making 2011 lovely and for taking time out of your much more exciting lives to leave comments. I appreciate you all enormously. ❤

The only Iraqi man I’ve ever met.

I wrote this piece on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning when news of the withdrawal was still in the headlines. Today I clicked on to BBC news to see that co-ordinated bomb attacks in Bagdhad had killed 63 and injured around 185.

A couple of years ago, I sat opposite an Iraqi man while he cursed at me. I was volunteering with an asylum-seeker mentorship programme and I was supposed to be teaching him English. He was showing me video images of bombings in his town that he’d taken on his mobile phone. He had a brutal glare and I was scared of him. He was hissing something at me that I can’t recall. I remember his eyes were lit up and that I didn’t know what to say. There was another student at the table, fidgeting.

I thought of him when the war in Iraq was declared over last week. And then again when I listened to a commentator on Pat Kenny talk about how the withdrawal of American troops was muted, because the operation hadn’t been a success.

In 2006 the UN estimated that over one hundred Iraqi civilians a day were being killed. In the end the number for that year turned out to be 34,000, amounting to 93 per day. On a single day in November, 200 died in an attack on Baghdad. According to antiwar.com, 4484 US soldiers lost their lives since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The last fatality was on November 14, just before Thanksgiving.

And there was the suicide of David Kelly in July 2003. I remember watching the coverage of the Hutton Inquiry in my pyjamas and wondering what a “sexed-up” dossier was.

In 2006 I was starting university. I counted balancing writing essays on Jane Austen with late nights out as one of my greatest concerns. I didn’t lose sleep over the 93 a day.

And yet, like everyone else, one of my biggest fears is losing somebody I love. It’s impossible to imagine the suffering of war, the little dominoes of grief tumbling as one life after another falls to pieces.

I follow the official blog of the British troops in Afghanistan. They use a WordPress account, like this one. Every few days the death of a soldier is announced, with a short bio, featuring his or her military rank and how their death occurred. You can leave comments. People do.

It makes me realise how little I know about the world, how, against the odds, my life has occurred in a peaceful place at a peaceful time. I don’t give thanks for this often enough.

I’ve no idea if the Iraqi was granted asylum. Most likely, he’s still in a centre somewhere, awaiting his hearing and measuring his life out in insipid cantine meals.