Berlin: a city that welcomes you with open arms, then kicks you in the stomach

The most threatening German definite article of them all

I’m not sure whether this is to do with living in a huge city having lived in a tiny village all my life, or rather whether it is more a heightened self-pity leading to a victim complex, but life in the pulsating mass of a metropolis seems to be rather intolerant of…well, almost all individual human effort. Every day seems littered with small signs that while you are trying your hardest to say ‘yes’ to life, Berlin is giving you a solid ‘no’. Take the case of a  few Fridays previous: I arrived at the train station a little late thanks to my stinking German phone’s alarm not going off to find that the train I needed to get wasn’t actually running after all, with absolutely no explanation or provision of an alternative but simply an atmosphere of such indifference to our disappointment that it is as if the air itself were giving a shrug worthy of a French caricature. Eventually arriving at the U-Bahn station I need to get to (against all odds), I literally limp to my kindergarten like a mad scientist’s assistant, suffering at the time from an agonising inflamed tendon in my foot. I give a taut smile as the gooey kid happily buries his breakfast-and-snot-covered face into my belly for my good morning hug, and as I hurriedly prepare the materials for the lesson before finding the children I pick up a nearby box to get a piece of chalk. Inside I find a message in large capital letters: “DIE.” It took me a couple of minutes (yes, that is probably two more minutes than it ought to have done) to realise that this is Germany and therefore the note is not a jarring and suddenly discovered threat scrawled in crayon. But for a split second, nestled among the lollies that were also inexplicably in the box, that note seemed like a sign. A sign that was trying to tell me to get out of where I don’t belong.

No-one can prepare you for the nature of a big city. Anonymity is one thing; seeing the same person more than once in passing is earth-shattering where in a village it’s one of the top ten most mundane things that can happen. And in villages you have to have a top ten because there are just so many mundane things ready to paralyse you with boredom on a daily basis. You do quite honestly feel like an ant in a nest, deedling about the place doing something so infinitesimally insignificant that it won’t really matter at all if you drown in a drop of lemonade. The pace is another thing; everyone is marching up and down the streets, you ricochet between trains and trams and buses like public transport Pong, the supermarket check-out women shuttle your food through the scanner as if she were trying to zing it through the window leaving a perfectly aubergine-shaped hole in the glass. This is why the parks and gardens are so popular, because the people here need a genuine oasis where all of this is simply out of the way for a while so they can dawdle and linger and all those other deliciously lazy words. 

But, as I said, the thing that really gets on my bluetits is the sheer sense of ‘no’ that pervades everyday life here. It is because the city is run by the companies and the municipal bodies, and they are as inhuman as they can possibly achieve. No-one is trying to help you, because you are one squidgy little cell in this big middle-aged body, and while some cells might be on the verge of popping it doesn’t matter as long as the galumphing great corpse still has life in it. Every company’s customer service department is populated entirely by those people whose emotional spectrum only diverges from apathy to touch pure sadism. I have been trying to receive a package I ordered for over three weeks now with no success because the store repeatedly tells me to talk to the delivery firm, who repeatedly reply that the only possible way to solve the problem is to talk to the store. For 3 euros per phone call. Recently, having waited about thirty years for some pancakes to arrive in a cafe, I went to the waitress and asked if we would be getting our breakfast soon please and thank you so much for your help; she merely rolled her eyes and told me, quite frankly: “Well, it won’t take forever…

Not to mention the fact that everything in this bloody place is closed at the moment, meaning that one can spend an entire day travelling from one thing to another just to see a dazzling array of barriers, ‘no entry’ signs and hopelessly dark shop windows. When my most beloved mother came to visit last weekend, I took her to the KaDeWe where we spent our entire life savings on a salad and bread roll, and as a consolation took her to the Gedächtniskirche, which for the first time in years and completely inexplicably was entirely shrouded in MDF. To make up for this, I took her to the Siegessäule, which, despite the fanfares of its finally being completely renovated and now gleamingly finished, was sealed off by military-grade scaffolding and chicken-wire barriers for no apparent reason. To make up for this, I took her to the Reichstag – we saw some beautiful barriers there, although unfortunately didn’t make it anywhere near the building. Everything is closed on Sundays, certain places open and close on a whim like a diseased sphincter, and other things are so rarely open you wonder why they even exist at all; in my last two holidays to Berlin the Bauhaus and the Neue Nationalgalerie were closed, and to my masochistic joy the last time I peered into the Neue Nationalgalerie this month it was an empty mausoleum with Absolutely No Art Here. 

The bureaucratic barriers are just as impressive, with rules that remind you of comedy legal documents where paragraph A section 3.1 line C section iiv syllable 6 is quoted as the dealbreaker. 
-No, you are not allowed an intern’s reduced travel fare despite the fact that you are an intern because the only exception to the reduced rates is English language teachers.
-No, you cannot take books out of the library because your postal address does not match your registered address.
-No, you cannot shower for the swimming pool without fully stripping naked as stipulated by the Berlin pools’ alliance.
 All of these are true.

No, no, no, no, no. Nein. Nöö. If there is such a thing as The Man, he is perpetually shaking his head. And this isn’t just Berlin; London is the same, and every other big city in England or anywhere in Europe (Paris, don’t get me started on you). Happily there is one antidote, which is that the individual people recognise the crushingness of this state and seem to do their best to undo it, and whether they go out of their way to throw your gloves out of the train window as it leaves the platform so your hands aren’t cold or whether they simply give you a beaming smile with your loaf of bread it makes you feel like a rather lucky ant.

Rose T