Little bit werrrrrr, little bit weyyyyyyy…

“Oh my god, someone took all my stuff!! Oh wait – I don’t have any stuff…

Something strange happened on the train today. I was standing next to a man with a beard and a beanie, who was with his two young, groomed and bright-looking friends (well, one of them had a distractingly small woolly hat on, but I didn’t hold it against him). The beardy man had a very posh, fancy camera, and he was looking through the photos on it with his mates, flicking through them with the odd snort of laughter. So far, so boring. But then – then he dug into his raggedy cloth tote bag and pulled out a towel. With the towel, he started to vigorously polish clean the camera on every single facet and button of the device, rubbing away at it with the towel as if he was trying to wear away the casing to get to the wiring beneath. As he continued and started using the towel to hold the camera, avoiding any skin contact, it became increasingly obvious that he was trying to completely eradicate any fingerprints on the gadget. He carefully dropped it into his pocket without touching it, like it was a dangerous piece of unstable uranium.

His friend, with the small hat, then took a mobile phone out of the beardy man’s pocket – yes – and fiddled about with it, before pulling his coat lapel aside to access a hidden pouch-bag he had strapped across the side of his chest. He rummaged in his secret pocket (I think I’m going to start calling it his ‘bag of tricks’ for the sake of intrigue) and took out another phone which looked like it had been thrown under several buses. He took the battery out of the back of the phone, then put battery and phone back into his bag of tricks and brought out a third phone and a different battery, and assembled the new phone and switched it on. He started to reset the date and time, and then we arrived at a new station and suddenly he, his beardy friend and the third one – who was impressively good-looking and had a very excellent jacket – jumped into twitchy alertness like a gang of ferrets and started eyeing up every new person who got into the train. At this point I concluded that they really were what I suspected: pickpockets.

The minute I made this uninspired deduction it was confirmed to me. The handsome one, his hair swept into a quiff that James Dean would have saluted, started showing his two mates an awesome feature of his jacket: he had cut a large hole on the inside of the pocket so that he could look as if he had his hand in his pocket while secretly reaching for an iPhone poking out of someone’s bag. His friends – cronies, you might say – chuckled and congratulated him on his ingenuity, but were cut short by us stopping again, which made them perk up like meercats once more, inspecting the new crowd that were stepping onto the Ringbahn. It was all incredibly shady and several things seemed particularly odd: one, that no-one else seemed to have noticed or be slightly wary of this band of thieves; two, that they were so openly and obviously parading their pickpocketing ways, as if it wasn’t a devious and ultimately very covert crime; and three, that the third one really was the kind of bloke you’d take home to meet your parents (although in hindsight his nice watch and quality hairstyle were probably purchased with the contents of someone’s nicked wallet). When it was time for me to get out, I clutched my bag to my chest like a newborn baby and marched off at double-speed. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone stealing my lunchbox.

This really startled me. Berlin has to be the place I feel safest, out of all the myriad places I have had the misfortune of living in. Even in the dreary skudgeland that is my hometown there are people who’d happily beat you up and nick your Gregg’s sausage roll on a Wednesday afternoon. My brother had a bottle smashed over his head by a complete stranger whose name was probably Jeremy, and came home with blood running down his temples. Our local Chinese take-away, who we used to blithely, trustingly visit from time to time, was recently discovered to be a secret brothel. Oxford was as dodgy as all get-go; there were all kinds of streets and pathways notorious for being particularly rapey, and in a town heaving with both naïve students and naïve tourists one can only imagine how many poncey Apple accessories get pinched every day. Essentially, I’ve never lived anywhere in the UK where I felt safe walking home by myself after midnight. Even in my first ever home, in the middle of farmland at the arse end of nowhere – there were incredibly dodgy, threatening-looking sheep in the field on the way home.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments in Berlin too. There was the time that I closed my eyes on the S-Bahn because it was late and I was tired, and the man sitting next to me started to slowly, gently, lift my bag out of my lap until I opened my eyes and gave him an astonished glare. He then started stroking my hair and inviting me to join him at his home, which I should have cherished more in hindsight given that it was probably the most romantic encounter I experienced in my entire year abroad. There was the other time when the two men started having a serious, audible-cheekbones-cracking fight right below my balcony. And there was the time when an old lady in the shopping mall decided to have a long and inescapable chat with me and started telling me about her cousin’s horse and the wolves in Alaska, before confiding in me that she was going to water the flowers, before then pouring her can of Coke into a nearby potted plant.

But generally this city is ludicrously, comfily safe. Take my word as a person who (to the uninitiated, for when you get to know me you realise that I am a small human battering ram) appears to be little more than a little, childlike girl, with long hair and a knack for accidentally falling asleep on trains. To look at me, I am as vulnerable as they come. And yet every time I gaily fall asleep on the train over here I can happily ride around and around for hours, unconscious and left alone by everyone, until occasionally some kind soul touches me gently on the knee and lets me know that I may have missed my stop and am now in Moscow. I can meander back home at a slightly skewiff angle from one too many schnapps at 5am and not even feel creeped out or retrospectively unnerved when I realise at home that my skirt had been tucked into my pants for the entire walk home. And when scary green-haired punks approach me, they wish to start a thoughtful discussion on the inherent beauty of printed literature

As in every capital city – or in every city everywhere, forever and always – you have to be cautious and keep your wits about you. There will always be dodgy people out there and people who want to tentatively slide your purse out of your pocket and into theirs. Yet Berlin seems to have a general air of being utterly unthreatening, and the streets are always populated with enough decent, normal people that no-one would dare do anything scary with so many witnesses around anyway, even in the darkest hours of the morning. If worst comes to worst you can always nip into a Spätkauf – there’s one every three metres – and have a quick chat with the cheerful bloke behind the till for a few minutes until you feel ready to keep on your way, perhaps buying a Ritter Sport to show your appreciation for his late-night willingness to humour you. And clearly there’s not a real pickpocketing problem in this city if the pickpockets themselves are so remarkably unsubtle about the whole thing. 

Still, I might keep my hand a little more tightly around my bag in future. And I still thank the lord every day that there are no sheep in this city.

Rose T