Berlin: lower your standards to live the high life

This shop is so epic the entire building has a beard worthy of Thor himself

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When I first told my friends in Berlin of my plans to move back, they made concerned noises. “That’s great, but are you sure you really want to?” they asked. “You know that jobs here are scarce and hard to get hold of, right?” At the time I tossed my head back and laughed in a debonair manner. Jobs were scarce in Berlin? They should try living in the UK, where people print their CVs on taped-together banknotes to try to be in with a chance of it not being immediately thrown in the bin. Where the universal facial expression is glum malaise, and the most popular job seems to be Tracksuit Wearing and Shouting Facilitator.

I haven’t the slightest regret about moving here, but in hindsight I ought to have given their warnings the credence they merited. Jobs are not ten-a-penny over here for darned sure. Added to that, my current almost-offer is messing me around like a cute boy with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and someday soon I’m not going to put up with that anymore. So unemployment it is then; bearing it out until I find something that pays the rent and doesn’t make suicide appealing. 

Happily, the wonderful thing about this city is that living without an income is remarkably easy, and I speak not of the controversial unemployment benefits system – I chose not to open that particular can of worms for myself until I literally am close to starvation. What I mean is the staggering amount of stuff you can acquire for zero euros, cash or cheque, everywhere in this place. Tired of being indoors and tired also of the mysterious noises my neighbour had been making against the wall for the best part of an hour (my best guess is that she was alternating throwing handfuls of marbles and iron filings at the wall for some kind of texturing effect) I got my shizz together, grabbed my overflowing compost bin and whirled out of the door to find some of this free swag.

The German word Verschenken means to give something away for nothing. It’s a lovely word, and a practice heavily embossed into the German psyche. Every so often you will find a cardboard box or little heap of stuff next to a house door with a hand-written sign perched on it saying ‘Zum Verschenken’ – ‘to be verschenkened’ – and you have the carte blanche to rifle through the pile and pick out anything that takes your fancy. In my last stay in Berlin this allowed me to accumulate quite an impressive selection of stuff: a sewing box, some books, a large wooden trunk (man I miss that trunk!), a beaming yellow sarong covered in suns…

Even on an idle walk to the East Side Gallery yesterday I happened upon a free large red leather sofa, a box of videos (which admittedly will probably finally be taken by hipsters who want to convert them into groovy iPod holders) and a completely functional-looking iron. And today, when I set out for my latest adventure, the fates seemed to be smiling upon my venture: there, perched on the bin when I went to chuck away my compost, was an awesome and wonderfully naff Spanish-style ceramic olive bowl in red, orange and green, with a teeny little pot attached for toothpicks and another teeny little pot for the olive pits. At least, I think that’s what it is for, although it may also be a breakfast plate with a normal egg-cup and a quail’s egg-cup…or a planter for three different shapes of cactus…

I nabbed my first prize and set off to the Umsonstladen ‘Systemfehler’ (system error). Meaning ‘Free shop’, an Umsonstladen is a Verschenken-shop where people can dump off stuff they don’t want any more and other people can come and take it at will. This is Berlin so there is of course a heavy political agenda attached; if you cross the threshold of the Umsonstladen you are joining in the fight against capitalism, gentrification, over-production and -purchase of goods, probably also nuclear energy and that kind of thing too. They host music nights and life drawing sessions and all kinds of wonderful community get-togethers in an admirable attempt to prove that life is worth living even if you aren’t constantly in pursuit of new possessions and the money to buy those trinkets. 

Still, I wasn’t there for the politics or the community. I wanted the trinkets. Every ‘customer’ is allowed up to five things per visit. I was particularly hoping to find a new T-shirt to wear to the gym and possibly a decent saucepan for my flat, which currently contains one non-stick frying pan, a wok the size of France and a beautiful collection of vintage enamel pots which I couldn’t possibly actually use. When I walked into the shop, I was impressed. In the corner was a quite beautiful piano in walnut and the room was fenced around with railings of clothes which had been carefully arranged onto hangers by style and size. Granted, there was a lot of crud around and the walls had been decorated in a zany way and a slightly deranged woman threw herself at the piano the moment I arrived, beginning to pound the keys with no attempt at a tune. Then a man walked in with his hair shaved in such a way as to produce a perfect monk-like hemisphere of hair on his scalp, like someone had rested a scooped-out grapefruit half on top of his bald skull. He was wearing a kind of semi-transparent sheet with a neckhole cut out of it like a poncho, decorated with a lurid sky blue and pink pattern. He was telling his friend that he was hoping to make some kind of quilt. 

I practically broke my neck trying to not stare at the two and instead browsed the shelves until I found one thing I was looking for, a T-shirt. The one I picked is a mellow blue shade which someone has painted by hand with a slightly haphazard picture of an awkward-looking kiwi bird in the bottom right corner of the shirt. Above the bird they have painted HUCH in large white letters: “Woops”. Evidently they had hoped to produce a much less disappointing kiwi and so painted their distress at the failure and then gave the T-shirt to the Umsonstladen. I have a feeling this will become one of my treasured possessions.

I also found a huge and woolly hand-knitted sweater for the chilly nights and was then accosted by the crazy piano lady who demanded to know if I was planning a presentation. When I told her no, and asked if that’s what I looked like, she said no and asked if I were a ballet dancer. When I said no again, she asked if I could play piano. No, I answered apologetically, and she then brightened and told me all about how sad she was that she couldn’t even play a single song, not even that one from Amélie. I sympathised. She asked what I was going to do now; was I an artist? No, I said, feeling more and more inadequate not to be any of the cool things she seemed to have taken me for. I said goodbye and on my way out noticed a very fat woman in the corner eating jam from a jar with a spoon. 

God love Berlin. I’ve got all these lovely free presents to play with and I made a friend. And I didn’t have to spend a dime.

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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