Ah, Berlin. It really feels like coming home.
I’ve never really described what it is about this city that’s really grabbed me from the first moment I arrived. I came here the first time in 2005. I’d just spent a year in Japan working in an agency and I’d decided to reward myself with a month in Europe.
The Japan stint happened after I’d got divorced from a German guy that I’d been with for 5 years. So while I was in Europe, I thought I’d go and have a look at Berlin, his home town, to see if that made anything he’d done make more sense.
I was expecting a nation of my exes, instead I found a city that just blew me away.
Architecture, food, systems, clothes, nightclubs, cabarets, cafe’s, cinema, old, new, do as you like with enough rules to make stuff work, personal and civic responsibility. I loved it. And the people are amazing. They are a tough lot, but once a German is a friend, it’s for life.
If there’s one thing I love more than anything about the Germans, is that you always know where you stand with one. Even if you don’t like it. They pull no punches and say exactly what they think of you and the situation. After life in LA where no one ever says anything that they mean, Germans can come off as blunt and rude until you realize they are just refreshingly honest.
Upon this arrival though, the jet lag took me down for the count. I don’t know if it’s an age thing or what but I need a week to get over a 12 hour flight.
But then began what was the third and greatest trip that I’ve ever had in Berlin to date. The workload was manageable, the ideas came easily, I was working with a great English guy called Martin and we had a truckload of nice work up on the walls.
So I settled into a sort of life in Berlin. Three weeks in a nice hotel and everyday catching the excellent public transport system to work and leaving at 6 to well, do whatever. Like get fleeced. Here’s the thing with that German honesty. It’s precise. And it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. And it very soon leads to enforcing a rule, which I discover is another very German trait.
Be warned all ye who venture onto the trains of Berlin. The ticket officers are everywhere and in superb plain clothes disguise. Last time I was here, Jason, a mate of mine from Singapore and Amsterdam days, were on a train on our way somewhere.
The doors closed, then three people pull out badges and start yawking at the passengers and everyone starts pulling out their tickets. We happily show ours and then proceed to make the officers’ day.
We had 1. bought the wrong tickets and 2. hadn’t put them in the machine that stamps the time on them. Not stamped, not valid. But hey, we’re not from here and anywhere else in the world you can pull the cute foreigner trick which gets you out of trouble.
Not in Deutschland. There’s a certain dark joy that the Germans take in enforcing a rule. In Amsterdam, rules are announced with total ambivalence. In Singapore, they are recited autobot style. In Berlin, rules are explained with a sly curling smile. They even have a name for this, taking joy in the pain of others – “Schadenfreude” – literally, the joy of damage, pleasure in others’ misery. In the States we call it Reality TV.
When they had found their marks, the three of them circled us like sharks until we could get off at the next station. I have to admit that when my Johnny Foreigner tricks don’t work, I am left a little at sea. Jason also was kind of stumped in the face of this didactic absolute.
We did point out that there are no instructions anywhere in English to tell you that you need to stamp a ticket.
Officer 1: Ja, well, you’re in Germany why should there be English?
Officer 2: Do you have guide books?
Officer 3: So then it should tell you, didn’t you read them?
I mean, it’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. They are right. You don’t get a pass for a first time here in Germany, you should know before you arrive. You idiot.
The female officer did everything but jump up and down and clap her hands with glee, bleached pigtails flying, as she and her cohorts took E40 each off us. And then we still had to buy new tickets. But they did give us a smiling tour of how to buy the correct ticket and stamp it, so that we didn’t make the same mistake again.
Later back at work I was retelling the story to a German workmate. He just smiled.
Claus: Did you ask for a receipt?
Claus: You’re an idiot. You should have refused and said that you had no identification on you. Give them your home address in America and tell them to send you a bill. At least if you had asked for a receipt, they would have to report it in. But they are drinking your Euros as we speak.
Then he laughed.
Somewhere in Pankow that night, a mini Octoberfest was being had in our honor. Here’s to the stupid foreigners and to us not putting English instructions anywhere! Ever! PROST!!!!