Friday, 19 October 2012

5: Co-traveling opportunity and sideburn burning

My first months in Berlin unfolded into a catalogue of shocking surprises. The tube, for example. Airports or train stations for that matter. In London there isn’t a bin in site anywhere in case the ghost of Osama Bin Laden decides that shredded photocopies tarnished in anthrax be the new weapons of mass destruction. For a society that wastes so much and is always on the move, this can cause us tremendous social issues like tube-passenger-frustration-symptom (TPFS), which is perpetuated by people not being able to throw their newspaper away and therefore constantly re-reading the same old word-porn while slowly going insane.

There are chairs in hospital lifts and bicycles for rent on many street corners in Berlin, and one time a doctor almost cried when with islander over-politeness and drama I thanked him, ‘Dunkerschein Herr Dokta’ in exchange for a morning-after pill. When my German colleague invites me to place my plastic bottle and (overly) read newspaper in a recycling space on the underground, the shock almost throws me under a train – is she delusional, I ask her? Has she even heard of the Mujahedin? The Berliners must be a fearless people; more committed to environmentalism than the war on terror which threatens the British Isles into a state of perennial paranoia.

Perhaps Berliners feels safe because they are guarded by Berlin’s large bears that pose on street corners with trendy international paint makeovers.

Or maybe it's because beer costs €0.75 a bottle. Or because men dress like actor Klaus Kinski and hang out at underground stations. One tells me, with apocalypse prose, “The real Germany is over, it will never return!” 

Chuck Norris - eat your heart out.
Another, Jan, has become my friend at Südstern Underground.  Jan is a ticket tout who works the evening shift three times a week and gives me my updates on the events in town before he sells me a ticket each day. After a week of buying them, I notice Jan simply scratches off the date and resells me the same tickets I give him back each evening.

Recycle bins (recycle ticket touts) and lifts I’m thinking. When I enquire with some German hippies about how I might go to Nuremberg, they tell me about a thing called Mitfahrgelegenheit. “It’s Eezy” they promise. “It’s a co-driving opportunity”.

What?

The next day, having called a number on the Internet, I’m in a car with Jonas, a Korean-German driver, who goes to Nuremberg every day and back with different organised hitchhikers. He plays house music constantly while telling stories about varying levels of traffic at differing motorway exits. Jonas knows everything there is to know about traffic cones and their locations and there are petrol stations he would “never dream of stopping at.”

Later, with my confidence in my German strengthened, I join in a song by the Prinzen about how great Germany really is (and at this point I’m beginning to mean it).

Nuremberg is a small town in Middle Franconia, famous for Christmas markets, pencils and sugar and hazelnut coated biscuits, Lebkuchen. The two largest and oldest pencil makers in the world, Staedtler and Faber-Castell, are based here, and for generations the two charcoal pushing families have been drawing blood from each other on the world stage, culminating in a court case in 1990 - a row dating back to who invented the pencil.

Nuremberg also has a cinema called Cinecittá, the most attended in Germany, where every row has a lovers seat (like a double-sofa amidst single seats). The city is also home to two outer city walls, as if the city’s forefathers weren’t sure where to set up camp. I can only presume they built two because they thought Bavarian invaders could be decoyed.

The next day in Berlin, this time after a co-driving opportunity with Gustav, a fridge technician, I open a bank account at Sparkasse, where a charming German bureaucrat takes my passport and casually wonders off with coffee. He returns moments later with a full cup for me, some papers, a 30€ voucher for the girl who introduced to me to the bank, and a spice-box full of cinnamon and garlic bits. “Welcome to German banking,” he says; I stare at him in disbelief. No proof of address. No awkward tests. No questions. Like a James Bond film, only in German.

It’s all so good. Then I start hearing that everyone pays the same rent as people spend on cigarettes in London. When I go to a party at eleven apologising profusely for being late (the bar’s empty after all), the host, my new housemate, tells me that I’m early. “Novan vill come til one” he says, still setting up the sound system. In London by now gutters would be flowing in teenage vomit and last orders rapped up, I tell him.

The next morning, my ego bruised and misunderstood, I head for the Turkish barbershop hoping to find solidarity with foreigners but instead the hairs on my ear are burnt off with a flaming stick. I run to a second hand shop to buy a hat that doesn’t fit. Berliners love hats and while at the time I hated the beanie I bought,  I’ve now come to love it: It even occupies a nostalgic nerve in my hat collection.

As I walk into Garage, the second hand store, although a clothes depo would better describe it, a large sign above my head reads 11€/kg and I buy enough jackets to survive winter for the price of a weekend Travelcard in London. The night before I’d almost thought I’d found a flaw in the nuts and bolts of German efficiency when a waitress hustled me to take my five wine glasses back to the bar. But on returning them, I was given a crisp 5€ note. Just enough to buy yesterday’s Tageskarte from Jan for tomorrow.

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