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.

Rose T