Thursday, 22 October 2009

The package

Recently I went to collect a parcel.

In Germany, this is not so straightforward.

After trekking across town, we locate the Berlin DHL delivery depot, nestled in between a dual carriageway and a quite frankly scary looking building complete with gargoyles and an ominous sense of authority (that now seems to have been turned into the HQ of a German Radio station).

Upon entering the building we were greeted by a scene that looked like a doctor’s waiting room. All the classic signs were there. Chairs in rows of five or six with that little bit of extra space between them to stop the spread of disease. People sitting on their own, or occasionally in pairs, nervously flicking through several month old magazines whilst repeatedly glancing at the clock and eying the person who came in before them. The occasional cough or shuffle. All it needed was some posters about herpes and the picture would have been complete.

My partner and crime and I join the queue for the counter and eventually get to speak to a very officious looking bearded German man. Once we get the inevitable language hurdle out of the way, we get on to the task in hand.

In the UK this is relatively easy. You give the bored guy at a desk your piece of paper containing the postman’s scrawl and after tearing themselves away from The Sun’s page three (or in delivery offices in more middle class areas, a Sudoku puzzle), they slope off to get your parcel. Usually, if they can be bothered, they ask for ID. In Germany things are not so simple. Forms need to be filled in!

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from spending an extended amount of time in Germany, it is a country which likes paperwork and bureaucracy. LOVES IT in fact.

Herr Beard roots around in his draw and produces an extensive document to be filled in. I have no idea what he was diligently writing down.

He asks us what is in the parcel. We inform him it is a charger for a video camera.

Do we have a receipt? We inform him that we do not as it was ordered online. This is a problem.

The solution is this; we go to the computer in the corner of the room which is kitted out with a cutting edge 56k internet connection and find a picture of what the item is so we can show him. Okaaaaaaaay.

We go online and find the item, a picture of this is then printed off and stapled to the extensive document and given to us. We are then given a number and slope off to the seats to read the June edition of Deutsch Dentist Monthly as Herr Beard troops off to the next room.

Granted, I’m not the head of an international parcel delivery firm, but I’d say the most important thing someone should do when picking up a parcel is show ID. After offering to show ID several times our passports were waved away as unnecessary. Perhaps there simply wasn’t a box on the form for this?

We thought we’d have to wait a while but this is not the case. I’m just beginning to learn the developments in German root canal treatment that happened four months ago and considering going back to the computer to download some MS Paint stickman pornography, when our number is called and we can proceed to the next room. Obviously, as foreigners, our case is treated as urgent!

We go to the first desk in the next room and show our documents and print outs, but are greeted by a shriek of “NEEEEIIIN!” and a stern point to the far end of the room, where who is waiting for us but Herr Beard himself.

He examines the form closely, which of course he’d written himself five minutes earlier, before declaring everything satisfactory and handing us our parcel. We are then firmly instructed to leave through the exit door and not to return to the first room. I’m sure if we did this, chaos would ensue and forms would have to be filled in to detail our misdemeanors.

Beneath the gaze of stone gargoyles on the street, chastened and feeling like we’d just got out early from a school detention, we celebrate collecting the parcel and muse if we did actually go into a DHL office, or instead somehow stumbled into a scene from the movie Brazil.

Next time: Pirates, prostitutes, Nick Cave and coughing on middle class Germans over breakfast

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Every Day is Like Sunday // The Wall // Pornography

Sundays in Berlin have now settled into something of a routine. It is the big day for poker tournaments and generally I play around 15 of them in the evening, beginning at 6:45CET and often going on until four or five in the morning depending on how I do. There is generally a lot of money in play and it can be quite stressful. The day is usually one for a big win or a big loss, or most likely - scrambling to break even.

In contrast, Sunday daytimes in Berlin are a very laid back affair. Many shops and business are in Germany are closed, so the city has quite a sleepy vibe. People go out to have a big Sunday breakfast, read the papers and wander around.

I am currently living in the Prenzlauer Berg area of the city. It's a nice, if somewhat gentrified area - not as edgy and hip as Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain, but certainly a very interesting part of the city to live in.

Our current apartment is on the fourth floor (no lift!) and is about 100 yards east from where the Berlin Wall used to stand. As a consequence, it is at something of a dead end. There is not much through traffic and it is very relaxed and quiet, but still near many things of interest. I like it a lot.

At the end of out street is Mauer Park. The Berlin Wall used to run straight through the park, bisecting it into two. Nowadays it is a focal point for life in Prenzlauer Berg and one of Berlin's biggest flea markets takes place there each Sunday. All in all it's quite a scene.

Bearpit Karaoke
The first time I visited the flea market, I became aware of what has become a phenomenon in Berlin. Each Sunday, two guys with soundsystems on bikes ride up to a dusty amphitheater in the middle of the park. They set up their speakers and people sing karaoke for the whole afternoon. But this isn't any ordinary karaoke!

A crowd of several hundred people gather on the steps and the grass bank to watch the performances. Slightly dodgy men sell beer and snacks from their carts to singers and spectators.

It's a uniformly positive experience. Each performer gets a huge round of applause at the end of their song. There is also what I like to call the 'Stars in Their Eyes moment' during each song, where after the first line is sang and it is clear what the track is, people woop and cheer in appreciation.

Last Sunday we were treated to the following:

-An old man in a brown leather jacket singing Wagnerian Opera.

-A drugged up hippie singing The Who's My Generation whilst his wife danced beside him and his long suffering son looked on in horror.

-A girl singing Elton John's Your Song in an extremely theatrical and emotional manner, clearly directed at someone in the audience. At the end of the song her girlfriend ran on for a big embrace and kiss, to a standing ovation from the crowd.

-Many of the songs were also accompanied by a very stoned and dishevelled middle aged man in a multicoloured jumper doing breakdancing. I didn't get a positive identification, but those who wonder what Bez from the Happy Mondays is up to these days need to visit Berlin to investigate.

Check out youtube clips of some of the singers

Bargain hunting
The market itself is great. For about 30 euros anyone can have a stall and people sell every kind of crap imaginable. It is mixed between the more professional stallholders who are there every week in the same spot and the car boot sale style people who are just selling a load of their random possessions. Some of my favourite stalls include the second hand dental equipment stall (sadly only seen once so far), the guy who sells rusty bike chains and tools and the crazy hippy women with her van full of tie-dye.

Lunch at the market is an exciting affair. This time, my partner in crime and I decided to get hot dogs. In Germany this means a cornucopia of choice.

"Let me introduce the sausages" said the charming hot dog vendor, before giving us a rundown of the various organic meats on his grill. We were overwhelmed with choice and he hadn't even gotten to telling us about the ten different types of mustard on offer. I went for the Berlin standard, the currywurst. My partner in crime plumped for the more standard Bratwurst, with a side helping of sauerkraut.

Appetites satisfied, we ventured back into the throng of the market. There’s one stall we noticed before but not fully investigated. It had such things as antique telephones, military paraphernalia and loads of old photos. Further investigation revealed that there were many old family photo albums on the stall. They were mostly black and white and seemed mainly East German. It was unclear who was in any of the photos or where they came from, but it was fascinating to flick through the pictures and speculate on the stories behind some of them.

Whilst going through one pile of photos we uncovered something unusual. Near the bottom of the pile, underneath several bleak, black and white landscape photos, were several pornographic images, seemingly dated from the 70s and 80s.

Looking up from the photos, not quite believing what we’d seen, we made eye contact with the stallholder who had a big smile on his face and had burst out laughing, as did we.

Jokingly he said something to us in German, which of course we didn’t understand. Instead he pointed to one of the photo albums, which we had not yet opened. As we finally got an idea of what he was pointing at, he again pointed at the album and then, with a smile on his face, pointed over the next stallholder, an unassuming, greying middle aged German gentleman.

Of course, the photo album he’d told us to look in, which was wedged in and buried beneath much of his other stock, contained hardcore 1980s East German pornographic photos. Let me tell you dear reader, there were mullets on some of the photos in parts of the body that I didn’t think possible!

Naturally we scrutinised the face of the next stallholder to see if he really was the mulleted lothario pictured in this homemade x rated photo album. Our stallholder roared with laughter, clearly this was the highlight of his day. Meanwhile the guy next door shook his head and smiled. Evidently this wasn’t the first time he’d been the subject of this joke.

We passed on the porn and wandered on through and out of the market, back on the route towards the apartment. On the other side of the park, intense looking people played boules, whilst a band who had hooked their gear up to a generator, delivered an impromptu concert in front of an adventure playground. Around us people carried their second hand furniture back to their cars and apartments, probably stopping on the way back for some fruhstuck at a nearby café.

So in conclusion, if you want to sing in front of several hundred enthusiastic people, have a mindboggling choice of hot dogs and mustard, or pick up some homemade East German porn - Mauer Park in Berlin on a Sunday afternoon is the place to be.