Today I was in a tiny bakery in Brandenburg and laid a ten euro note on the counter. The bakery lady picked it up, her face spasming with disapproval, and shifted it 20cm south before dropping it in the special shallow plastic tray which is supposed to hold the money. Then she turned away to make me a cup of German tea: that is, boiled water with a tea bag sitting limply alongside. Then she picked up the ten euros again, took it and laid my change in the plastic tray.
I said to the man queuing behind me whose hand was resting on a stack of newspapers, isn’t that a sad story? The full page story up front was printed on a black page – a cyclist in his seventies had been knocked from his bicycle by a car door and had died. This man shrugged. In astonishment I said, “Es ist Ihnen egal?” It’s all the same to you? He made a mouth. “Berliner Probleme.”
These are just Berlin problems. We were an hour’s train ride from the city centre and standing on the platform of a Berlin train station. The train had ended early and we were all waiting for the official ‘replacement transport’, a big yellow bus. The bus driver looked me in the eye as I approached at the end of a small queue of people and then closed the glass doors in front of my face and drove off.
I remembered suddenly that Berlin is an island, an island in the pleasureless wastes and Stasi prison camps of the former GDR. Eventually a new bus arrived, with a far friendlier driver, and only two other passengers, who befriended me and gave me careful, detailed instructions for my solo forest walk. As we drove through the little township I peered into people’s immaculate gardens, their kitschy window treatments and collections of tiny sculptures including various clothed animals and dolls made of clay or straw. Hours later the town’s only punk, who had given me directions to the town’s only affordable eatery which was not a snack bar selling mostly ice cream, stopped his matt black van beside me and said, “You must be tired of walking. Hop in.” His big caramel coloured hound loomed over the back seat and rested her head on my shoulder as we drove and he said, casually, “Yes. Hereabouts it’s pretty provincial. I came back because my Mother was ill.” We passed a beer garden crowded with big parties of bikers in their padded black jackets who had come out for the day while it’s still sunny. At the end of the street gleamed a beautiful lake. Shouts came from the sandy playground which had a large sign headed “Principles of Playground Conduct.” A swan stood among the ducks cleaning itself earnestly. I took a shot of rum in my hot chocolate and read my book, having lent the little boy next door in his pram my pen. A girl came out carrying a tray of unbelievably ornate ice cream towers in tall swirled glasses. She set out across the road in her perfect white sneakers. A large man came past toting a tiny bright eyed dog. The sun splashed the crumbling medieval town.