Click ‘OK’ to restart your commuter

There is a sign on the vending machine on the left which says: “THE CHOCOLATE HAS MELTED. YOU ARE ADVISED NOT TO BUY.”

Working in Berlin, I became a dynamite commuter. I worked in at least two different schools or Kindergärten per day, and they were perfectly geographically arranged to be at least an hour if not two away from each other. I learnt Рafter many long, hard days of getting it wrong Рhow to get the right trains and buses at the right time and in the right directions, which stretches were actually quicker on foot, which trams never came on time and which lines would always feature the maximum ratio of on-the-edge-of-sanity people to normal people. I thought, at the end of my year abroad, that my days of travelling for hours to earn my daily bread were over. How wrong I was.

So yes, readers, I apologise once again for the huge gap between this and my last post, which is a direct result of me having started my new job. Living at home and commuting into Oxford every day seemed like it would be such a doddle; Google maps cheerfully told me that the bus journey from the station to my office would take a scant 25 minutes even including the walks between stops, and the train journey itself is a relatively painless affair. I invested in a month-long bus pass and readied myself for being one of those people, salt of the earth, who willingly brave the public transport every day to get to work. 

But commuting in England is a very different kettle of very frustrating fish compared to commuting in Berlin. In Berlin every line runs smoothly and like a large, symbiotic lifeform; the lines link up nicely, the tickets work on every single mode of transport and the coffee being sold on the train platforms is generally OK enough to drink and enjoy for a mere euro per cup. In the UK, such an idea would be seen as a naive utopic dreamland to us bitter, British commuters. The trains stutter to and fro like elderly people driving golf carts, their arrival time on the electronic board simply an estimate of some time in the hypothetical future when a train may or may not be present for a hypothetical person’s needs. The tickets cost as much as a rare white truffle and even then are received by the ticket collectors with furious suspicion, as if you were handing them a Cafe Nero loyalty card with two stamps and a bit of old gum on it. And the coffee? Knowing that you are compelled to buy yourself something warming and dark at a cold 7am in the morning they charge ¬£2.50 for a cup of lukewarm woodchip water. And the buses. Oh the buses.

The bus on my bus pass is like communism: heavenly in theory, impossible in practice. This is a bus which only has roughly 2 miles to travel along a completely straight road and is part of a group of buses each of which follow the same route and collectively depart every three minutes. It sounds like a foolproof, solid-gold system. What actually happens in reality is that this ‘every three minutes’ idea transforms into four of the same bus arriving at the same stop simultaneously, at which point thirty people all begin to board the same one. The other three become redundant as they neither have any passengers nor could leave if they did accrue passengers because they are stuck behind the first one which is currently being mounted by a shuddering old lady carrying a lot of empty plastic bags and a teacozy. Finally, ten minutes after the bus was actually timed to depart, it powers up and leaves only to stop seconds later at the first of about fifteen red traffic lights along this straight and short road. The lights go green, so some Italian tourists decide to saunter casually across the road at this moment to grab a cornish pasty. At the first bus stop, the driver has a long and cheerful chat with the old lady while she makes her slow way out of the bus. A schoolchild has a question which he begrudgingly and slowly answers. In Summertown (half-way there) people daringly run-walk in front of the bus out of sheer desperation to get to the Co-op having waited at the pedestrian crossing for an hour already. At the next stop, someone alights simply to ask if they have the right bus or not and if not, what is the meaning of life? I have arrived at Oxford train station at 8.10am. I get to work at 9am. I could have got to work quicker on a child’s tricycle. 

So now I am an even more hardcore brand of commuter: a bike commuter. I am among the leagues of stringy businessmen wearing high-vis everything and bike helmets that look like a robot shark from the future. I am among those intense commuters who have invested thousands in their carbon-fibre-framed-folding-bikes and bike-to-business converting trousers. These are the scariest commuters of them all; they are unspeakably dedicated, slick and efficient, coated in neon yellow and swiftly lifting their bike from train to train like a basket of feathers. I seem to have joined this sect without reading the pamphlets first, as their looks tell me that I am certainly doing it all wrong. I am the only bike commuter among them who is a short becardiganed girl feebly hoisting my second-hand old mountainbike with the wicker basket held on with string and a beer bottle opener on the lock key. They glare at my ginormous and cumbersome bike shunted between their beautiful slim vehicles which they have expertly hung from the bike hooks on the train (mine does not hang; it is too heavy and too small. If anything, my bike squats).I suspect they imagine I am on my way to visit my grandma or doing my year 10 work experience. 

I then hoick my bike off the train and drill my thunderous thighs up those hills to the office, and arrive half an hour earlier than I ever would using a thing with an engine. On the way home I get to go downhill and go ‘weeeeeeee’ all the way to the station. My coat often gets chewed up into my gears, I cycle into puddles with such ferocity that the water goes right up my skirt onto my knickers, my hair billows into an angry scribble and I arrive home with my hands covered in mud and oil. Good god, I love it.

Tune in next time for some stuff about what my actual job is actually like!

S41 flew over the cuckoo’s nest

It’s a metaphor.

Good grief, the Berlin public transport system is a scary state of affairs. If you weren’t already troubled by the inexplicably furious bus drivers, the erratic arrival and departure times and the completely indecipherable tram system, the main thing which really poses as a threat to your safety and well-being is the inescapable fact that a public transport system is, well, public. You sit knee-to-knee (and sometimes other body parts are involved) with real Berliners, and while the majority of them are inoffensive or even pleasant, there is a universal rule which applies to at least every single U-Bahn line and S-Bahn carriage.

This rule is as follows: no matter how empty of human beings the carriage might be, there will always be at least one completely mental person making everyone else feel uncomfortable and worried. It first occurred to me relatively early on in my stay here that you meet the occasional eccentric on the trains but at the time it seemed relatively unsurprising; there are eccentrics in every city and Berlin is one of the maddest of all the major conurbations of the world. However having now spent what feels like eight years on the trains I can assure you that there is never a time when there has not been at least one unhinged member of society gibbering away somewhere in my vicinity. 

It is a phenomenon I find baffling and completely fascinating. For one thing, how do these people manage to be so mobile? How on earth do they afford it? Most of them carry all their worldly possessions in a LIDL carrier bag so old it looks like it is made out of elbow skin, most of them seem to get their income from grabbing every single bottle or can they can scrounge from the platforms for their 15 cent deposit. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: how do they have enough mental clarity to remember to buy a ticket when they are not yet aware that they have a large amount of string in their hair or that their dog is chewing their leg?  Another question which puzzles me so much I sometimes find myself genuinely furrowing my brow and shaking my head about it is this: where are these people going? They are clearly all making some important commute, as no matter how completely screw-loose they are they all seem to reach a sudden moment of lucidity when their destination station comes up and they leave the carriage with all the purpose and seriousness of a big-business CEO.

Unanswerable questions aside, I do find it genuinely mind-boggling (excuse the ill-chosen phraseology) how many completely nuts people there are circulating around the Liniennetz. Just today we had one man (complete with statutory LIDL-bag) who grumbled something incomprehensible and then proceeded to sneeze his entire respiratory system out of his body; he must have sneezed about thirty or forty times, once every few seconds, each time with a gravelly roar and an incredible amount of spit and phlegm which was literally dripping out of his handkerchief. We also had a woman looking out of the window determinedly repeating ‘Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja.’ and checking her mobile phone, and another man who well, he didn’t do anything, but he did have one eye startlingly bigger than the other.

And then there was the guy who stood in the middle of the aisle loudly growling “BAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH” until he swayed a little, blinked slowly and began instead to growl “BAAAAAHHRRRR-geld” (meaning ‘cash’), evidently realising that the reason why no-one was giving him money was because of the missing last syllable and not because he sounded like an aggressive elephant seal. And then there was the frantic young man on the train back from the tango course who loomed into my face, gestured wildly at my cheek and chin and gabbled lots of things before laughing, while the other passengers quietly urged him to be quiet and leave me alone. I never found out what he said, but I now have a nice new set of neuroses about my cheek/chin region to keep me occupied in darker times. And then there was the man who, as I made my way home from a Stammtisch, thought I was asleep and tried to gently lift my bag out of my hands; once I had clutched it to myself and blurted ‘NEIN’ he began to stroke my hair and suggest I come with him when we reach his stop. 

Be aware, new travellers in Berlin. These people are almost always talking to themselves, if not the entire carriage, and often in their very own language. They are drinking something weird (and I don’t mean alcohol; often they just have a massive pot of buttermilk to quench them) or have a dog with accessories, say a stylish neckerchief or a weatherbeaten rasta hat. Like those weird tumour-like balls of flavouring goop one finds in a bag of sweet popcorn, you will always always come across at least one. However, let us not wish for their absence or complain that they are unpleasant; they are in fact the best way to achieve any solidarity with Berliners. You will exchange knowing looks with your fellow travellers which simply say ‘Yes, here we go…just ignore it…’ and before you know you will feel a part of the Berlin community faster than any volunteer work or coffee morning could ever achieve.