Thursday, October 8, 2009

Trains, Stairs, and Tongues

Out the cafe´s window the green tracks of the underground train, the U-Bahn, rise from the earth to meet a barn-like above ground building, the Eberswalder street stop, while surface trains, buses and cars criss-cross in front of it. Rain falls today, sometimes gently and sometimes heavily. The road’s asphalt and the rising green rail lines are shiny as if somehow they were a source of light on this gray day, and not just its reflection.

I love good public transportation and the ease it allows for people to move through a city. It seems an amazing invention, particularly when you are from the American individualist suburbs, like I am, where car rules king and each house may as well be a castle with a moat.
Outside it may be blustery and wet, but inside the trains it is warm and dry. I generally need to take off my jacket in the warmth, though I seem the only one who needs to do so, since people stay bundled up.
Some, perhaps most, of the underground trains’ cars have long seats, on either side, against the train’s wall, with room for people to stand in the middle. A few others have seats that run cross-ways, two abreast, with a narrow aisle in between.
I do not know what the difference is, or why they have the two kinds. I have noticed that some lines seem nicer than others. The U-1 line that begins in the chic Kurfürstendam area has nicer, brighter colored seats on the train. But they also go lengthwise.
In either case, I like the trains. They have been my classroom in understanding spoken German and in beginning to perceive different dialects. Supposedly the Berlin dialect is heavy and very noticeable. I think I am starting to hear it, but there are so many people from all over, tourists, new residents, and old Berliners that it all gets merged.
Yesterday, some late teenagers and early twenty somethings got on my car. There was one seat left and an aggressive young women, whose beauty made space for her actions, claimed it. Then she scooted over and had one of the boys sit next to her in a space designed for one person--the narrow hips of youth. Another boy came forward and she rose to have him sit where she had been sitting while she plopped herself on his lap.
They talked of their impressions in Berlin and teased each other. I caught much of what they said, without trying to listen. Then a phone sounded on the other side of me. The girl, with her blond hair slicing downward on one side of her face, got up and walked past me to a young woman who looked like an older version of her, picked up the phone and stood in front of me.
“Halo papa” she said, as her voice shifted from being the master of the group to a daughter. “Yes, we are having a good time. We are on the U-Bahn...”
With a lot of uh hums and yes papas, she finished her conversation--she did’t say much though the other person obviously did, handed the phone back, and reclaimed the boy’s lap. My stop came and I rose to get off, never to see them again.
Not only trains vary, the stops are also different. Yesterday, when I got off the U-2 line at the Klosterstaße stop, I walked into a station covered with blue tile and old, faded paintings of neighborhoods with no captions or explanations. It is very different, in its 1920’s decor than the more functional and 1960s looking Alexander Platz station which is one stop away. Surprisingly. the Klosterstraße stop opens into the very touristy Nicolai Viertal, a block away, with its kitsch shops, biergartens, and rebuilt buildings between the Spree river and the red Municipal building. yet I expect very few tourists make their way there by this particular underground stop.
Nevertheless, I got off surprised that there was nothing in English for the tourists, and actually no historical or other description in German. There was not even a map of the rail system and the neighborhood streets. I walked up the stairs and out of the earth. Across the street, at the end of a short way by a large modern building with a French flag, was the river.
It did have signs along it, all in German, nothing for tourists. I guess they were all in the boats coursing down the river to tour-guides’ chanting. The signs spoke of the importance of the river as a highway through the city and its surrounding neighborhoods, and how it has changed over time. Berlin grew up as two settlements, one on an island in the Spree and the other on the river’s side, near where I was standing. Like many important cities, it began as an outpost on a trade route and trade and movements are still important to it.
The Nikolaiviertel was disappointing. It was Disneyland-esque and way too touristy, though the boarded-up old church did look intriguing. An on-line guide warned about the neighborhood, but my print guide book gushed and so I went. I did like the sandy path running alongside the river on the way to the Viertel, and the tables and chairs right up against the edge in some places. Though yesterday was sunny and warm, fall has definitely arrived. I could imagine what it would have been like in the long days of summer with lots of people walking by the riverside, and others sitting and chatting over beers.
Strangely, I also liked the stairs made of faux white stone, like those in the old Marriott Library at the University of Utah. They rose from the river’s bank to street side by what were described as old mansions. The stairs made me think of how complexly divided and subdivided cities are into very different spaces. Many of them seeming different worlds, with different accents and cultures. And how fascinating the passageways are between them.
The view along the river from up there displayed the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral, with its gold dome, in glory and solitude, as if it had simply dropped down there. Of course it has other majestic buildings all around it which display its mission as anchoring the various iterations of kingdoms and such into the sacred. But from my vantage point, down the tunnel of the river, it looked majestic and alone.
Past the Viertel rises the East German Space Needle, the tallest building in Berlin and part of East Germany’s pride, when it was a separate country. From my neighborhood the Needle, with its rotating cafe and lookout, just seems a few blocks away, in the other direction. The former DDR, the German Democratic Republic, is all over the place, though it has been two decades since the wall came down.
Last night I went to go to a lecture at a local bookstore by a writer who details the DDR through his family’s history. I gather from the description of the book on line that his book combines the idealism of socialism with family authority. The lecture was in German, so I was a little concerned about whether, or how much, I would understand, but when I got there the place was full. Obviously the topic of the DDR, its rise and fall, matters a lot to people.
On the Potsdamer Platz, which seems a kind of protest/ free speech zone, on Tuesday there were a series of display boards describing the history and economic success of the DDR, despite the way the Soviets squeezed it for brutal reparations payments. The boards culminated in a question. What happened to the wealth of the DDR? Where did it go?
While I was trying to digest the boards’s German, since these were obviously written to a local and not an international audience, I was approached by a well-dressed man in a blue shirt, suit, and overcoat. “Do you speak English?”, he asked. He then identified himself as a professor from Iran whose wife and children were imprisoned and who was working to defend the rights of all the people imprisoned in the recent uprisings.
And so we met, I who have two cousins married to Iranians and who followed the recent uprisings closely, and this gentleman from Tehran, both of us strangers in someone else’s land and from opposite sides of the world, yet sharing a varying kind of connection to Iran.
I just heard one of the people who works here in the cafe speak Spanish. Of course my head lifted and my fingers stopped typing. I could understand easily, without effort. Now the I speak to him in Spanish now or continue trying tomorrow and onward in my German, which is neither of our native language.
Well I did have my first real conversation in German. I don’t know why I am so shy. But I am and for some reason I have liked for many decades to be a passive consumer of German, rather than a speaker.
No surprise, it was with a man from Turkey, from near the Syrian and Iranian border. Many expats say that the Turks are the first residents of Berlin with whom they develop friendship. My first day here I bought a donner kebab from him and he had to put up with my not understanding more than a word here or there as he asked me which sauces I wanted and would I like the full salad.
Yesterday I decided to just go with it and talk. So I asked questions, he answered, and then he asked where I was from, I answered, he asked me more questions. How long have you been in Berlin? Only a week? How long will you be here? Are you staying near here? And so on. Simple but real. His name is Ali and I shall speak with him more. Small store keepers are great ways to break barriers into learning about local society. In this case, I had my first sustained, though not that long, conversation in German.
I was bold enough to talk to him because the night before I went to a movie theatre to see a Lars Von Trier film. It was made in English, but the version here was dubbed into German. I gather that is standard practice, as ex-pats speak about where to find movies in English. You have to look for “OV” next to the listing, Original Version. And, it is rare, I gather. No matter. I was warned by my housemate, I went anyway and enjoyed it. Sure, I did not understand everything. But you have to throw yourself into the language, I think, and it will start making sense.
On line, a lot of the ex-pats complain about how hard it is to gain access to Berlin society. Of course they do not know, or forget, how hard it is in their own societies. Yet, my housemate who is on doctor’s orders to rest and recover, is very nice and welcoming. He loaned me some CDs and invited me to go to a concert with him and his girlfriend. That is so cool.
By the way, the only way I know anything about ex-pats at the moment is from overhearing them in the street or on the train, and reading what they write online. I have resisted throwing myself into their world, despite being alone and struggling with German, because I want to know the local world, and not just the intercultural zone of the ex-pats, fascinating though it is.
Now, in the cafe a handsome young couple is sitting next to me, tall and blond. The young woman in a gray rain slicker, maybe twenty-eight-ish, came into the cafe first and claimed the table next to mine. She signaled to the young man outside who wearing a black bomber jacket with a green athletic zip-up underneath, was pushing a black baby carriage. He parked the carriage with the baby in it, by the window alone, leaving a cell phone or a walkie talkie in the carriage, and came into the cafe. At home if people were to leave a baby outside on a stormy day, everyone would freak out of fear someone could steal the baby and at the lack of parental concern and responsibility. one has said or done anything. Outside, no one stopped to look or stare. It all seems very natural. The couple sipped their coffee and nibbled on their croissants stuffed with ham, as they planed their day in the city and which subway stops they needed to take.


  1. They used to leave 'prams' outside shops here but no longer do it.. they cram them in even the tiny shops and then everyone falls over them now.. when I was a baby, my mother, not being used to having a child around, left me in my pram outside the rochdale post office, a large buiolding in rochdale town centre.. then when she had finished her business came out and got on the bus and went home. My grandma asked her when she got home..'where is the baby?' .. ooops my mother said and ran all the way to town to retrieve me and push me home. I was still there, asleep. My mother had never been around babies.

  2. Cool about Berlin's starting on an island. Paris also started on its Ile de la Cité.