Category Archives: Berlin

Carnival with the animals

Berlin has two zoos. One in the former East, one in the former West. They are still referred to as the Ost-Zoo and West-Zoo, and in my experience the one Berliners choose to visit is determined by the side of the wall on which they, or their families, grew up. As my British heritage removes any sense of obligation I might have for one or other establishment, I can take my pick. On Saturday I tossed a coin, bundled up my youngsters, and set off in a flurry of snow to see the western penguins in their element.

IMAG0542I am not, I should point out here, entirely comfortable with zoos, and whenever I do go, I am struck as much by the behaviour of my fellow human beings than by that of the animals they are there to see. I’m not talking about the hordes of tourists who rush from one cage to the next taking photographs at such a pace that it seems unlikely they have the time to take in what they are documenting, but about those who come alone, and talk to the animals as if they have known them for a long time. Those people catch my eye.

A couple of years back I recall walking towards the hippos behind a woman with a pram. I was pushing one of my own at the time, and thought nothing of it until she stopped to tend to her baby. I swerved to pass her, and as I did so, I saw that her baby wasn’t a baby at all, but two life-sized dolls. Dressed up and wrapped up, they stared at her with eyes and expressions as blank as her own.

Our paths crossed again in the hippo enclosure, where she whispered to her dollies, and questions whispered to me. I was thinking about her when I went to the zoo this weekend, half-wondering if she might be there somewhere. I went to the hippo house on the off chance. But the spot where she had stood on my previous visit had been given over to children in costume and adults in brightly coloured wigs. Carnival had come to the zoo.

IMAG0528Loudspeakers thrashed out German folk songs, and people stood about eating sugarcoated balls of dough and drinking coffee from paper cups. But there was no dancing, no laughter, and the atmosphere was one of forced gaiety. I asked one man who was doling out sweets if there was any particular reason for staging the event with the animals? “The hippo house is heated,” he told me. “That simple.”

In which case I think I prefer the complex. I prefer the dollies in the pram, because however plastic, they were, and perhaps still are very real.

Category: Berlin, Childhood | Tags: , ,

Der Man im roten Pulli, or the man in the red jumper

I saw him again yesterday – der Man im roten Pulli. Actually I heard him before I saw him. I was out for a run, bracing some pretty unforgiving elements, when a high-pitched male singing voice reached me. The words were too battered by the wind and the rain for me to make them out, but their accompanying tune sounded very much like this.

I strained to listen, hoping, oddly I admit, that he was indeed singing “Now the harbour light is calling, this will be our last goodbye, though the carnival is over, I will love you till I die.” But just as we see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear. And I evidently wanted to hear some sort of melancholy romance come out of this man’s mouth.

That, however, was not what I got. As he levelled with me, he paused to offer me a jolly smile and a line about the weather. “Tough conditions,” he said before jogging on again while crooning fragments of what, it turned out, was not The Seekers, but quite probably a German folk song, into the wet winter air. “Ja-ja-ja- aaaaaaa.” Silence. “Ein A-a-a-a-bend. La-la-la.”

He bounded towards the park exit, taking his red jumper, his singing and his general cheer with him. Although I could no longer see him, he stayed with me for the rest of my run, the happy man who sometimes sings and sometimes dances his way around the jogger’s circuit. He is with me again today. Making me smile.

A defining moment

“I would like a pregnancy test please.”

The words, spoken by a voice entirely foreign to me, immediately drew me out of my world and into that of their issuer, who stood not two feet away at the chemist counter. It wasn’t just that the request came from a man that caught my attention, but that it was delivered with such steady, almost loud assuredness, and didn’t betray even a hint of the emotions so intrinsic to testing for pregnancy.

When the pharmacist slid a box over the counter and asked in a whispery tone if he would like a “little bag” to put his purchase in, he gave her a resolute “no.” She took his money, he pocketed the pregnancy test, they wished one another a pleasant evening, and off he went into the dusky night. All this, I saw out of the corner of my eye, as if a close up in a film. But it wasn’t the close up that interested me; it was the man. It was what would happen next in his story.

I left the chemist a minute or two later only to find myself walking behind the same man, whose right arm hung awkwardly over the slight bulge created by the pregnancy test box in his coat pocket. It was a cold night, and it wasn’t long before the need to keep warm outdid any reasons for not wanting his hand to share his pocket with the stick that would determine his fate. At that moment, I would have like to go back to the close-up, to see how his fingers interacted with the box. Did they touch it softly, hopefully? Did they flick it? Did his nails score into it?

I imagined his partner at home, waiting for him to arrive so they could move beyond the uncertainty which was currently a part of their lives. I hoped for them that whatever the news – a first baby, a welcome negative for an already overstretched mother of four – it was what they wanted it to be. I hoped that the evening would be one of celebration.

As I was hoping on his behalf, the man began veering to towards the mouth of an upcoming snicket. Our paths were about to diverge. But before they did, and before he disappeared, he slowed right down and cast a glance over his shoulder. It was a shifty look – a million miles from his assured presence in the pharmacy – that appeared to be checking that nobody had seen him. And it was a look that changed the story unfolding in my head. No longer was he going home to his partner, but to visit the other woman in his life, the one he knew he should not be going to see, the one he could not resist, but was now secretly wishing he had.



Knocking on the workshop door

I read an interview with writer Jenn Ashworth the other day, in which she spoke (among other things) about how belonging to a writer’s group can be a useful way of pinpointing which parts of a draft do and don’t work.

I totally get where she’s coming from. I love writing workshops. I remember the first one I attended, and how the nervousness I felt in anticipation of the event was unexpectedly dwarfed by the thrill of hearing people – then strangers – voice their considered opinions about my words, plot, characters etc.

I have since been a part of several different workshop groups, and have been along to a number of one-off meetings, and I can say with the exception of one session I have found them all to be hugely, wonderfully helpful. Not only as a way of divining what works (both from other’s comments and writing), but as a means of growing confidence; of knowing when to listen to the instincts of a reader, and when to trust my own.

I mentioned in an earlier post about unruly children that I was attending a series of (play and screenplay) workshop run by CJ Hopkins. Those have now finished, and it won’t be long before the final draft of the play I presented at them will be too.

I may have reached the same point of near completion in the same time frame without a string of Tuesday night trips to a writer’s room in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, but even if I had, I think there would still be question marks hanging over the piece. And the only one I want to see hanging anywhere is at the end.

Click here to read the Jenn Ashworth interview, conducted by writer Rachel Connor

Category: Berlin, plays, Writing | Tags: , ,

A beautiful trio

From where I am currently sitting – in a cafe not far from where I live – I have a wonderful view of three elderly ladies, all tucking eagerly into their lunchtime special. I might not have noticed them at all were it not for the endearingly, unwittingly comic way in which having crossed the threshold, they stood side by side in absolute stillness as they watched a father struggling to get his snotty toddler to put on its coat.

“That’s your father,” one of the women said. “Yes, your father,” added another. The third didn’t speak, but bent her rickety frame to lend a seemingly unwanted hand. The whole scene was over and done with in a matter of minutes, and the trio has probably moved on from it more quickly than I. Because here I am, half an hour on, looking at them with a certain degree of fascination.

And as I look, one of the things that strikes me is that despite their scored wrinkles, the skin that literally hangs off their cheeks and necks, and the sunken appearance of their eyes – or perhaps because of these things – there is no mistaking the fact that they are sisters. At least that is what my motherly mind tells me. And it asks me how their own mother would have responded to the sight of the three of them standing crookedly around the toddler in the way she might have done with her grandchildren, their children.

I can’t imagine she would have liked the sight, because as sweet as it was to an impartial observer, it was also a public display of elderly vulnerability. I think of my own little ones, and wonder if, 70 years from now, a stranger might recognize their blood relationship to each other when they are out for lunch. I hope so. I like the thought of their emotional and visual bond remaining close, but I’m also glad I won’t be around to see their faces droop and their legs buckle. It would break my heart.