The Intimacy of the City: Berlin

Friedrichsfelde Berlin by Red Haircrow
Friedrichsfelde Berlin by Red Haircrow

You see it all around you everyday, from the person leaving the post office who walks over to their bicycle and begins to strap on their goods yet looks back and sees someone struggling towards the door with a heavy box. The bicycler stops and observes them for a second or two then puts aside their gear to help the person.

Few parents alone have to worry about getting their pram down or up the stairs to a train station that doesn’t have a lift. Inevitably someone will volunteer to help them carry it, or they can ask someone and without hesitation the burden will be shared.

There’s a man riding his bicycle in the left lane, when the right is where he’s supposed to be unless immediately turning. Almost each car that passes, the driver rolls down their window and remind him of where he should be. Not angrily, not irritated, just general, before they continue on…and he, obliviously continues on his course having heeded no one.

You, of course have the rude ones, but don’t confuse them with the brisk. The ones who don’t say excuse me if they reach around you in a queue to retrieve an item. They expect you to move, just as they would move for you without comment. It doesn’t bother me, although I must say sometimes when I lived elsewhere, when someone did a similar thing looking at you as if you should move, incredulous because you didn’t. Yet when the situation is exchanged, they don’t move for you. They look at you and decide not to, yet for certain others, they do it with a smile. You have to be attractive enough, of a similar ethnicity, etc.

When I walk along here, it’s so funny sometimes, because I have people who are Spanish look at me quite intently, curiously. I can see it in their eyes wondering if I am Spanish. But that’s less common. Most common are the South or Central Americans who might speak to me in their language, wondering if I am “one of them.”

I lived in what some call the Berlin “Chinatown” where Chinese is often heard spoken, and many of the best Chinese or Asian restaurants were there, along with grocery markets, common grounds and services shops. Next most common language you might hear spoken, besides German of course, is Russian, but there are many nationalities here, compared to some suburbs and certainly outside of Berlin in this region. When you go to the arcaden a few blocks down (it’s the equivalent of a shopping mall) the squares in front have all kinds of people.

You have the known beggars who are there everyday at their accustomed spots, and since many have to regularly shop here, these ones receive their regular donations also. If I have extra, I certainly give. Don’t have it too often, but if they ask, I tell them I will assuredly give next time…and they know I will. When I must decline, they say that they understand.

At the end of September, I went to meet an old friend who was bringing along two others from a travel website we were all members of. We were going to sample the first beer of season from a certain brewery. A nice biergarten in a little square with its tables beneath very old trees, but it also has rooms inside the nearby building where the beer is brewed. I didn’t see my friends outside, so went inside to look. An old man sat at a high, single table by the door. My appearance usually gets attention, I’ve become used to it. He curiously watches me as I curiously look around.

The difficulty is, although I know what my friend looks like of course, I only know from photo the others. Maybe I missed them, I walk back through. The old man comments in a friendly way that if I am looking for someone he is available. I smile but decline. I was the first to arrive for a change, my friend was late as were the others but we later shared a few rounds sitting outside. The old man eventually comes out, and he looks towards our table, stops to catch my eye, waves and gives a cheerful good-night. I smile and wave back. He continues on then, smiling to himself.

“Did any of you know that man?” My friend asks.

They reply in the negative along with myself, but I said I did speak to him briefly inside.  Maybe we are lonely, or maybe we are just glad to talk to someone, be a part of something or someone for a time. One accepts their needs. On the way to that meeting, a thin bearded man had stopped me just down from a train station. He wasn’t that old beneath all the hair and dirt.

“Just 50 cents,” he asks me. “Please.”

“How about a euro?” I return.

“Thanks!” he says enthusiastically, hurrying away with his coin.


I had to go out to the shops despite having recently having surgery and though the temperature wasn’t especially cold, the wind (as ever) was strong and biting, blowing the snow fiercely sideways. Unable to hurry, moving at my current shuffle I missed the bus. It was only some metres away, had just pulled up, but as others broke into a run to catch it, I just sighed. One damn minute earlier and I could have made it. Now I have to wait twenty minutes until the next, no covered wait point here or seats.

There is an elevator box giving access to the U-bahn (underground train) below. I creep behind it, thankfully finding a place somewhat sheltered from the wind. I pulled my hat further down and prepared to wait. Even if one doesn’t look at the bus schedule posted, if there’s no one or only one or two, you know the bus just left. You know you’ll have a wait unless you’re in the heart of the city where they go by every few minutes.

An old woman slowly makes her way to the stop, she glances at me and her faded blue eyes meet mine, I greet her and she smiles and returns it then creeps behind me, I, the extra wind stopper. She agrees this is the better place to stand, and now more people are joining us. All older save myself, all in the lee of the building. The lively conversation continues about past winters, changed bus schedules and recently acquired purchases. I am just beginning to thoroughly chill when the bus finally arrives.

I only have two stops to my flat complex, not very far at all, and pre-surgery, it was faster to walk the distance (perhaps 10 minutes home to station) than wait 20 minutes for a bus. The motion of the bus puts a strain on my incision but it is better than walking in the cold, as my blood levels have not fully rebuilt.

With the weather the bus is fuller than usual, but I’m able to get a seat and it is shuddering relief as my pain was rising, yet at the next stop another old woman gets on, carefully negotiates the aisle, and though a young guy probably in his late teens should get up to let her have his seat (for he’s sitting in the area for the handicapped anyway), he glances at her then returns to texting. You have those kind, too. I can’t keep sitting while she stands, I give her my seat instead.


Past posts about Berlin life:

Too Much Time At Rathaus Charlottenburg

The Shannon: An Irish Pub

Berlin Underground & Catwalks

Herr Zug & Night Shift

Spring in Berlin