The Most Dangerous Bag in Berlin&Other Caffeinated Musings

We are faced off in a battle of wills, the German man and me. Only, I think he is not German. Which means I think that perhaps his parents were not born in a small village in Bavaria but somewhere altogether to the south of it. Somewhere with lovely weather, bougainvillea petals floating in the breeze, thick, dark tea in miniature glasses. I am wrong, though. Because this man is as German as it gets. For, you see, he is holding a wooden slab the size of pocketbook and illustrates, slowly, carefully, in measured, authoritative, if slightly choppy English, that my bag is larger than the slab. And since my bag is larger than the slab it needs to be banished to the bag deposit area. Which is a glorified container, not a cloak room inside the venue, but a square metal box outside, so you can queue in the merciless northern breeze of the Spree together with other equally irritated humans. Only, well, my bag is not really a bag. It’s a tote bag, you can fold it and put it in your pocket. I illustrate the process. Fold the tote bag nicely and carefully, then place it in the pocket of my jeans, with a broad, beatific smile. There you go, sir. Yes bag, no bag. He frowns slightly, unimpressed by my magic trick. Aber nein, he says. Nein. The bag is bigger than the wooden slab. He knows it CAN be bigger, and that is that. I am defeated, and retreat to the snaking queue, to place The Most Dangerous Bag in Berlin in the bag deposit area. Is this it, the polite lady at the counter asks. Yes, this is IT. Inside, the band merch on sale includes a variety of tote bags. I briefly consider buying one and rubbing it under the guard’s nose. Something tells me he would not be impressed and I didn’t travel all this way to be unceremoniously ejected from the premises of the Mercedes Benz Arena.

I’ve long suspected that the attraction most Germans felt towards rules was more a self defense mechanism than a natural propensity. As long as rules exist and we are cocooned in their safety, nothing too bad can happen. It’s also quite easy to tell what is within the boundaries of the rule, and what is outside. But there are also liminal spaces. The grey areas, where the tissue of the universe slowly unravels. The size and material of my bag. The moment when all the self-check-in counters of the hotel malfunction and the single clerk at the reception breaks under the pressure of everyone suddenly wanting a piece of him. The realisation that our plane has been directed to the wrong gate, and the decision that needs to be made on whether it should be towed into the correct position, or the passengers should be moved to the other gate, both solutions having more downsides that advantages. It’s in these circumstances that the German system seems to crumble, a victim of its own perceived precision. My Balkan instinct tells me to improvise, fold the bag, fix life threatening cracks with Scotch tape, use Coke bottles to store brandy of nuclear potency. Perhaps there was a flicker in the eye of my Mercedes Benz Arena nemesis, a sympathy for my pathetic attempt to circumvent the rule, but ultimately, I remained a quirky abomination. What are we here for, if not to play by the rules.

It was such thoughts that I ruminated on while sipping my umpteenth coffee in Berlin, in that state when overcaffeination will either reveal the secrets of the universe or send you to the ER. Neither eventually happened, but I will take the risk any time, coffee in Berlin is just too good and the patrons in cafés are just too spectacular. There was the friendly neighbourhood wino, who, for a cup of coffee and a piece of pastry would carefully carry the chairs and tables from the back room to the coffee shop’s terrace. The dad who looked like Wes Anderson with Jimi Hendrix hair. The Briton with a paisley caftan and electric blue nails. The tall blond hipster who looked like he escaped from a Nordic saga only to be hired by a tech start up, and the insouciance with which left his coding work running on his screen while he fetched his latte. This one is not hung up on those strict rules, then. I have found a singularity. (To give this account some minimal whiff of usefulness, here’s a few of the places where good coffee is to be had in Berlin: Five Elephant Kreuzberg, Bonanza Coffee Kreuzberg, Refinery High End Coffee and Die Espressonisten, with extra bonus points for the silly pun).

Besides coffee shops, when in Berlin, I also spend an inordinate amount of time on the metro. I like it because the carriages are often yellow, admittedly a reasoning a three year old would give for liking ducklings but bear with me. I like it because it snakes in and out of the ground, revealing canals, skyscrapers, bungalows hidden in leafy gardens, the familiar silhouette of the TV tower or the golden goddess atop the victory column.I like it because some stations seem grubby and futuristic at the same time, like portals into a dystopian sci-fi comic strip or a secret pathway to the exuberant Berlin of the 1920s. I like it because many passengers still read books, magazines and newspapers, and sometimes a reader, instead of crouching painfully over the tiny screen of their phone, will unfurl a broadsheet, its large sheets flicking in the breeze of the tunnel like the wings of those angels in the skies over Berlin.

I like it because the people riding the Berlin metro are at least as spectacular and diverse as the ones visiting its coffee shops. One afternoon I stood on the platform, next to two elderly Bosnian women wearing headscarves, a couple with a baby in a pushchair and a girl with a dog. As the doors of the carriage opened, we squeezed through a group of revelers already quite tipsy, bottles of Berliner Kindl clutched close to their hearts. Generally speaking, any time is a good time for a Berliner Kindl on the metro, and there is an absolute lack of judgement about it, an acknowledgement that certain life situations just call for a beer in the morning and that’s fine. Across the sea of inebriated youth was the space designated for pushchairs, and three seats, of which two were occupied by two trans women with intimidatingly sparkly nails the size of razorblades. The eclectic group eyed each other and made some calculations. The two trans women needed to get up, make their way to the other side, let the dad with the pushchair in, once he was parked, the Bosnian women would move to the empty seats and then everyone would regroup, all the while carefully avoiding stepping on the dog’s tail. This was done with an incredible amount of enthusiasm, Entschuldigungs and smiles. I remembered the interaction a few days later when a gentle looking little old lady unleashed a storm of invectives on us in Budapest for having spoken English in her presence. I’m not a fool or an idealist, quite obviously Germany as a whole and Berlin as a city has its issues when it comes to dealing with people of different backgrounds. But Berlin always gives me the feeling that it genuinely tries, much harder than most places, to make an almost utopian cohabitation experiment work, and there is an eerie hope and consolation in that.

There is an eerie hope and consolation in people in their sixties wearing piercings, tattoos and band T-shirts, on their way to clubs and concerts late in the evening. As I age, I am often told that it’s time to do this and that, wear such and such clothes, live up to such and such expectations. Then I smile, and I explain that I’d prefer not to. But there’s always that creeping feeling that I am on a battleground and I need to stand firm on my positions, explain them away. That maybe, after all, I’m a little bit strange. So that is why I like to sit on the Berlin metro, look around, and notice, with unexpected comfort, that everyone here is decidedly stranger than me. Stranger- but not strangers. I am among people who have decided to accept each other, quirks and all. I like such a place, and suddenly it starts to feel a little bit like home.

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