“Berlin is Berlin,” a drunk Italian/Swiss girl is telling me from across from my kitchen table. She had just tried to swipe a spoonful of my curry before I swatted her hand away, she made a terrible mistake. The irony of Italians wasted on me she says, apparently. “Berlin is Berlin…” she kept saying, waving her hands. She tells me that Berlin is not Germany, Berlin is Berlin, you know, Berlin, it’s just Berlin. I just remember thinking that if I hear her say it once more I am going to do her a favour and put my dinner in her face. But I don’t.
The pretention that surrounds Berlin is immense. I feel I am not qualified to comment on it right now, though. Berlin is not Berlin anymore. At least it’s not the one that people tell me about – this is just what I am told and I believe it. I have a growing love-hate relationship with Berlin at the moment. Rigorous paperwork, it’s easy to get bogged down. Constant roadblocks stopping you from metaphorically being where you need to be. A bad housing market and everyone, everyone out to get you. Every company that you have to deal with wants you to sign various contracts that are all in German and far too confusing. A lot of pretention surrounds certain aspects of the city that don’t even exist anymore. Berlin is not easy, it’s not cheap to rent here anymore, and prices have been rising in general. Crime is on the rise but despite the knowledge of that, I feel somewhat safe here.
Older ladies, bureaucratic ones, the kinds of women who like cats, are all very nice to me. Maybe it’s my smiley eyes, floppy hair or general demeanour of being open to conversation (even when I don’t want it) – but regardless they enjoy my few sentences spoken in a near perfect German accent, colourful, and with a friendly tone, I have had a lot of practice.
I get by on very little German, using the best of my ability to tack words into sentences that just about make sense. I’ve been told that my German is actually quite good. Course this is miraculous considering I have never studied German before. Secretly I only have about 10 sentences, interchangeable ones – maybe that’s good enough for them, good enough to register, good enough to be polite at a coffee shop, good enough to know what people want when they ask me questions. Either that or I have had a lot of practice trying to sound German and am moderately convincing at it.
My love/hate all began while registering in Berlin, where, in the bürgaramt there is a wall dedicated to photos of missing cats. I arrived early to definitely get registered, it was 7 am, and it took to 8.30am to realise that the staff were on a training day. There was a notice on the wall, obviously none of us spoke German. No one got registered that day and we had to go home to try again the next day – I could remember a few faces when I went back, some it seems just didn’t bother returning. This was the beginning of my love/hate that continues to today.
I went back the next day, waited outside for 2 hours, I was one of the lucky ones, I was 10th in line, but I could easily have been 54th had I arrived 10 minutes later. The woman at the desk shouted at the men before me. I was terrified. If she spoke no English I was fucked. This was the day I realised my special power over bureaucratically minded German women. I smiled at her, ran my German lines about wanting to register that I learned rote from Google translate. To my surprise, her stone heart melted at the poor little Irish boy in his colourful hat and fluffy jumper – straight off the boat chic. I was off the hook, she spoke English and even let me come around the desk to explain some things to me – she told me I had good German.
I still don’t know what to make of it here. I’ve been away just under two months now – and this week I am finding myself spending over €500 putting stuff into my apartment and it’s starting to sting a little. It’s expensive to move away. The language is starting to be a strain, my brain is sore from trying to make connections between words. Funny thing is that I’m actually learning quite a bit and my German actually isn’t as bad as I think. But anyway, I can get by on puppy dog eyes for now. I watch BBC World News a lot because it’s the only English channel I have. At least I am caught up on the news, daily, sometimes watching the same bulletin over 3 times in one afternoon. But they do good documentaries on a Sunday. My life right now kind of feels like that episode of The Simpsons where Bart moves to France and all of a sudden at the end he is fluent. I kind of feel that happening to me. My level of German seems to increase in direct correlation to how many problems I am having here. Who knew I could give out on the phone to my letting agent about a water issue in an understandable level of German?
Anyway, the Christmas markets are nice and when it snows, it’s perfect.