Tag Archives: Berlin

Of Books and Berliners

I have a small child who likes to rearrange my bookshelves. It’s a habit that involves pulling as many volumes as possible onto the floor before I intervene. As it happens, I like the game as much as her. Albeit for different reasons. While she thrives on the anarchy of the moment, I am excited by the way that anarchy fills the room with the very real possibility that I will find an old letter or a thought scribbled on a scrap of paper and carelessly filed away between the pages of books. Last week I found a newsletter from a bar in Putney I evidently once went to – so long ago, however, that the phone number on the back bears the old London dialling code and a complete absence of any digital identity.

And then a couple of days ago a book I have not seen for ages and didn’t remember I had, landed at my feet. It was a skinny little “guide to the Germans” I received as a Christmas present during my earlier days in Berlin. I didn’t exactly devour it at the time, and I doubt I will now, but I did flip through it, and read the apparently compulsory chapter on sense of humour.


“The Germans take their humour very seriously,” it begins. “It is not a joking matter.” It goes on for a couple of pages about how German jokes don’t translate into English, about how irony is not part of daily life, and how humour is not only prescriptive but often pre-scripted.  “Disorderly humour is not only nothing to laugh about,” the section concludes, “it is often not even recognised.”

The generalisations are, of course, greater than the reality. I was thinking about that reality yesterday, when  ensconced in my local cafe for some quiet writing time, a rather nervous looking man in his mid-thirties walked through the door. There were plenty of free tables, and he hovered around them for a moment before choosing the one immediately to my left.

He came up close, pulled out a chair,  then tutted to himself, and moved to the table on my right. This time he was there for the duration. He dumped his stuff  – coat, hat, scarf, briefcase etc. – on the bench and asked me if I would keep an eye on it all for a moment. “Like a hawk,” I promised with a smile, as he strutted off towards the toilets. And although nothing was going to happen to his stuff during his absence, I watched it… a small black mound of inanimate objects. They looked so dark and dull, and I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming desire to hide – just temporarily – one item. Sadly he was faster than my thought, and was back before I could act on my impulse.

When he approached our corner of the café, he looked at me questioningly. “It’s all still there,” I told him. He nodded his approval or his recognition of a job well done and took off his suit jacket. “Although I did consider hiding it,” I confessed. He did a kind of double take before releasing a limping bout of wooden laughter  into the gap between his table and mine.

It hung in the air for a moment, before he cut it off dead, turned to me square on and said: “That wouldn’t have been a good idea.” And somehow, judging by the look of earnestness gripping his face, I don’t think he was joking.

Bleak Berlin and a bunker

Berlin in February is not Berlin at its best. The snow is gone and the sky, a pale shade of grey, is thick with a cloying nothingness. I went out into it this morning, hoping a jog would stir the air for me, fill me with new thoughts and ideas. But as I ran, all I could feel was a lack of inspiration. Nothing. Nothing at all. So I started to wonder if that lack of inspiration could be turned in such a way as to become inspiring itself. And that question led me to Oracle Night, in which Paul Auster’s protagonist writes his own protagonist into a hole – a bunker – from which there is no easy way out.

It’s a literary scene that my mind seems to enjoy recalling more than I recall enjoying it – not because I didn’t like the story, but because I didn’t, and don’t, like the idea of getting so absolutely stuck either in writing or life, that the only solution is to unpick and start over. Today, though, I welcomed the bunker images from the book, as they dissolved the heavy Berlin sky that hovered above my head, and took me into the infinite realm of interpretation and association. And once there, I received another literary visitor in the form of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. But that, as they say, is another story for another time…


A typical Berlin February sky

Going slowly

You know how when you acquire something new and seemingly unusual – might be a purple bicycle or a blue pair of shoes – and then suddenly start seeing the same item everywhere around you? Well, I have something like that going on with walking frames on wheels, or rollators, as I now know they are called. I haven’t gone out and bought one, but I did have an encounter with one the other day. An encounter that makes me look at them differently…

I was pushing my zero suspension pram along one of Berlin’s hobbledy cobbledy narrow pavements, when I saw a crooked old lady with a rollator (that word again) inching her way towards me. One of us was going to have to stop to let the other pass, and it made sense that it should be me. I watched and waited, but instead of continuing on her way, she stopped too, and looked up at me, her frown giving way to crinkly warmth.

“Do you keep getting stuck too?” she asked. “This surface is terrible for my wheels.” Realising she was referring to my pram, I told her it generally managed all right. But it seemed from her expression as if that she had hoped I would give her a different response, and that she wanted us – regardless of our age or situational difference – to have something in common. So I let her have it.

“I sometimes get stuck in the park though, on all the protruding tree roots,” I ventured. She sighed. “The park! Oh I can’t even go into the park.” Perhaps she had not been seeking commonality after all. Perhaps it was me that sought it. I wasn’t sure where to take our exchange next. She was poised to shuffle off, but it didn’t seem right to say nothing more, so I offered her an admittedly lame: “Go slowly.”

She raised an eyebrow, rearranging her wrinkles in the process, and said: “I don’t really have much choice.” And off she went, leaving me with a new awareness of elderly ladies on wheels.

Category: Berlin | Tags: , ,

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: , ,

A defining moment

“I would http://feathouston.org/canada-cialis-online 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.