I’m an Irishman in Berlin and someone is after me.
Yes, he was beckoning me over. A slender waiter by his stall in Berlin Central Station, fried food ready to roll out, not a currywurst to be seen. Gun to my head, I would always choose the comforting skin of something pulled out of a fryer. The naked taste of sausage, with nothing but curry powder drizzled over it, failed to appeal. If this was German cuisine’s concession to flavour, it was a pointless one. The only thing more common in Berlin than pieces of the Wall – fighting for a market with moon rock and splinters of the True Cross – are Vietnamese restaurants, Kebab kiosks and sushi, and Mexican, and all the delegates of the gastronomic European Union, their Michelin stars on a deep blue table-cloth.
I walked over to the guy. His animation stood out in a sea of polite patrons; they only sparked into life if you asked for a plastic bag or went to pay with plastic. Shopping bags and credit cards were verboten; stamped with an exclamation mark, a grammatical structure beaten into submission in most languages, edged into irrelevance by excitable airheads. But here we are in German, and I jump when a big sign tells me not to rest my bike against the shop window. I relax when I remember I don’t own a bike, but it takes a few moments to think that and a few more to believe it.
Irishman in Berlin: Improv
‘Don’t be scared. You didn’t want to come over!’ He said.
‘I’m very shy’, I replied. I’m not, but sometimes small talk gives way to improv and I had a general sense of who I was supposed to be. He handed me a Tupper with calamares. I wasn’t hungry, but my mind made two calculations: it was free, and a tourist never knows when they will eat again. The restaurants sometimes play techno and the hotel can be very far away.
‘I was going to throw it out’, he explained, ‘and I was looking for someone to give it to’. He must have seen my cargo shorts and touristy t-shirt, and taken pity on me. Or he saw me wandering around the concourse, under the glass ceiling that opened to the sky and hinted at the next station, from Yorckstraße to Zurich. I was asking for directions, train transfers – I probably looked like a guy in need of some conversation and a hot meal. Yes, I was limping, but climbing to the top of Berlin Cathedral is a mad thing, one which can find you on Museum Island. This is an island full of things and people despite the absence of a Dr Moreau, and the Greco-Roman columns that say nothing much except that rich people two hundred years ago had lots of money but no ideas.
The next day, I cycled down Karl-Marx-Allee boulevard, a wide thoroughfare made for military displays and tarmac crushing tanks. The Commies didn’t think things through – in 1953, it was big enough for a Worker’s revolt, and today it’s not big enough to stop me asking another Irishman for directions. ‘It’s somewhere near here, sure’, is what he said. I understood him: we’re in Berlin! No rush to go anywhere, just enjoy it. I was stuck in a hellish catch-22, but at least knowing that made me want to walk to no.22 on the street, just for a gander.
The guards at Checkpoint Charlie shouted Visca Barca and there was more improv when one of the lads pretended that póg mo thóin was the Irish for ‘hello’ and not ‘kiss my ass’. If we all spoke in staccato stock phrases, there’d be no teaching job for me back home.
The taxi driver took me to the airport, complaining liberally about living with his mother. I wondered if driving to the terminals tormented him. I urged him to make a dash for Paris, Toronto, to get away from it all. Maybe that’s why he was insistent on teaching me slang from the Engish north, with accents, or role-playing Tom Hanks to an invisible Wilson. I understood him, too. Something about working with the public makes you want to run away from people. And small talk strangles the authentic self, especially when on a loop from hotel to airport and from airport to hotel.
This is an international city. People, with no hope of escape, can escape to here, improvising a life.
We even sell t-shirts; they’re snazzy. Thank you for reading Irishman in Berlin!