New from Nivea: Berlin style skin-thickening cream

You’re not so friendly yourself, sign-y boy…

You’ve got to be darned tough to live in this city. It is by no means a place for dreamy romantics or vulnerable maidens; no, in this city, raised by Kraftwerk and Currywurst and G’s that sound like J’s, you must be an industrial terminator-type, a metropolitan-style SAS warrior. You have to be ready to shove your shoulder into wherever you want to stand or move and ready to walk through an open door even if it’s being held open by a struggling young mother holding groceries and two babies. 

Well, not quite, but as an awkward and chronically apologetic English dame I had to learn pretty fast to be ruthless and grasping to get by. If you don’t learn this, you can’t make your way in Berlin and people find you rather silly and quaint – I still get looks of disdain when I apologise for letting the man next to me spill his kebab gravy onto my shoe. It is important to realise that everyone in the city is just doing whatever he or she has to do to get from one place to another, sort their stuff out and generally make their own life work within the practical constraints of the Big Systems like banks, trains and supermarkets. They’re not being selfish, but if you don’t take this attitude too you will end up thrashing about in the gutter like an injured shrimp. Here’s what I have learned in the last few months; I can’t wait to see how it’s received once I’m back to stuttery, blushing, Hugh-Grant-esque Britain.

1. Wherever or whenever you are, be ready to say exactly what it is you want or do not want and don’t apologise for it. Order exactly the coffee you want, as you like it, and if you want to pay for your shopping with a fifty note hand it to the man with unbroken eye contact as if to say, “yes, I know it only costs 3.42euros but you’re either getting my fifty or a punch in the face.” If you don’t do this, things always – always – go wrong. The moment when you hand the fifty over and say “I’m awfully sorry, that’s all I have” is the official thumbs-up for the cashier and all the people in the queue to start sighing and grumbling and rolling their eyes like they’re novelty halloween toys. And why is it important to remember not to apologise? Because these people at the tills and at your table are going to test you to prove your mettle before they give you anything. The last time I used a fifty to pay for an ice-cream (it truly was the only cash I had – why do those notes even exist when they’re so useless?) the man raised an eyebrow so high it went over the back of his head and came all the way round to become a small goatee, and then said “Really??” with US-sitcom-style sass. I stopped going to one cafe I used to like because my sensitive inner Englishman couldn’t take the fact that every time I ordered a cappuccino with semi-skimmed milk the waiter would scoff and bark “Why?”. Recently at a restaurant I ordered my salad dressing on the side and the waitress’ eyes widened: “What? You can’t just mess around with stuff on the menu! Great, now I’m going to get it in the neck from the kitchen thanks to you”, she replied lividly. Fragile non-Berliners, stand your ground and get what you are paying for or you will get spit-foam topping your coffee.

2. Be open and good lord, be ready for when people are open with you. I will admit, I am easily thrown when people say critical things to me. That flaw is rapidly being beaten out by months of true Berlin honesty; just last week I was in a private meeting with my high-boss to discuss me doing some illustrating work for the company when I began to tell her about one aspect of my artwork. She stood up, loudly declared, “That is uninteresting”, and left the room to get her tea. You must get used to people telling you what they think and realise that it is nothing to do with rudeness and everything to do with simply realising that being open and broad about it makes living life so much less of a social-politics quagmire. I often get texts from people who I have agreed to meet up with on that day simply saying that they want to cancel just because they’ve gone off the idea (yes, it’s taking all my energy not to interpret it as a statement of “you are simply rubbish”, too). But so much human life is wasted by agreeing to do things you don’t want to do or are not interested in; it’s hard to muster the courage to reply to an invitation with “no, I don’t like ska-bebop fusion music” but it’s nuts – and very English – to presume the other person’s feelings would be offended by that statement. The reason why no-one wears outdoor shoes indoors over here? Because in Berlin there are no doormats.

3. People will hit on you just because you are alive and in their locus, so be ready with a good response. I am not particularly a babe-magnet and me flirting looks like a 10-year-old giddy from stolen brandy, but since coming here I have been often disarmed or completely taken aback by the sudden and completely inexplicable advances of people who really ought to have figured out that it’s not going to be the romance of a lifetime. Aged greengrocers, aged hippies, skateboarding hooligans who kindly inform me they want my number for their brother, 15-year-old goons who ask if they can MSN me, much-older-than-me waiters who ask me if I like clubbing while my grandparents ARE RIGHT THERE WITH ME…It’s nothing to do with being a hottie or people being more amorous, it’s just that in Berlin there’s a sort of superficial and very faint nudge-nudge wink-wink feeling hovering in the air. I suppose if you spend your whole day handling juicy mangoes you are likely to sense it more than most.

4. In Berlin, there is no such thing as me-time outside your own home. You can be sitting in a cafe with a wall of books around you and headphones on and a do not disturb sign hooked onto your ear and someone will still think they rather fancy coming over and having a chat with you. If you are having a romantic meal for two in a restaurant, you clearly would like nothing more than the greasy sous-chef coming and leaning his back against the wall in preparation for a good long chinwag. This is pretty great a lot of the time because you do genuinely ‘meet people’ in the old-fashioned way where people approached each other just because they thought the other looked interesting or was doing something they were curious about. It also results in some highly interesting banter with waiters or barmen which is entertaining and helpful for vocab acquisition to boot. But if you are in the blackest mood and simply want to sit for a while injecting your hate into the Brötchen you are devouring that is inevitably the time when the leering and bearded baker decides to quiz you about your fingernails.

I live with two girls and I think we have all found this a little alarming in our inaugural time here. But we are Powerfrauen and we are building up our fortifications with every time proper Berlin-toughness is required. I reckon soon we’ll even be ready to chat up the greengrocer ourselves.


Rose T