The best thing about living in Berlin so long and getting better with my German again is I can really enjoy people. Quite often, Berliners are just sweethearts. Today I phoned the handmade brush and broom shop that stands not so far away, in a leafy street I covet and run by the man whose grandfather must have founded it. His name is the same. I said, I would like to buy one of your dustpans, and he said, Ach I just live upstairs! Come over and ring my doorbell and I will come down.
I jumped on my bike, feeling a bit overexcited. Imagine buying a handmade dustpan which is prettily polished from steel. Imagine buying it from the fellow who made it.
His shopfront is more of a billboard for his principles. He has filled it with neatly hand-lettered exhortations reminding us we are all Mitmenschen, fellow humans, and when I first passed the shop he had a giant orange inflatable louse suspended and slowly twirling in the front window, with the label on it, “TRUMP.”
So I rang the doorbell and he let me in. The inner stairwell felt so cosy and sweet. Immaculately swept rush matting, a neat row of letterboxes, and more exhortations about common humanity. “My brothers are black,” I read, “my sisters are red.” From above I heard a decorous commotion as Mr Brush came down. Two other people gossiping at their upstairs doorway greeted him as he passed. “Hallo, ihr lieben,” he said: hello, you loves.
He let me into the shop, by the back door, revealing an organised back room that resembled some earnest party headquarters. Pamphlets were stacked in boxes and on benches, a German flag stood furled in the umbrella stand. He gave me the dustpan and I explained to him, I have no heating at my place right now, I have been warming terracotta pots in the oven and then standing them in the living room to radiate heat. Today the Handarbeiter (the hand workers, that courteous term by which every German plumber, chimney sweep, and boilermaker is known) are coming to finish up and reconnect the heating. I’ve been wanting one of your dustpans for ages but today, I’m going to use it persuade these guys to clean up after themselves.
I waved the dustpan at him like a pennant.
Getting back on my bicycle I saw a woman in the accountant’s office next door, she was blowing up a silver foil balloon and we smiled at each other through her open window. The balloon was in the shape of a 3. “Machen Sie Party?” I asked, are you having a party. Nudging my chin towards the three: “Ihr kleinste Kollegin wird endlich drei?”
Your littlest colleague is finally turning three.
She started laughing into the balloon. “Keine Kindersklaverei mehr,” I encouraged her, “ist vorbei!”
No more child slavery! we are done with it. She threw back her head laughing, the balloon for her three- or more likely 30-year-old colleague wobbled and squeaked in her fist. I rode home with the beautiful, perfectly polished dustpan reflecting an increasingly blue autumn sky. Trees passed in my basket as though I had caught them with this tray. At home I opened the door to my Handarbeiter, who set up in bathroom and kitchen and as I was typing I could hear the older guy, hammering in my bathroom, muttering to himself. “Well, that’s never going to work, what are you about, Micha? That’s better.” I emptied the garbage basket to get it out of his way and ran back downstairs, carrying compost in one hand and trash in the other. An incredibly tall, good-looking guy was standing by the rubbish bins. He opened the lid for me, courteously. “Wouldn’t it be good if we had separated rubbish collections,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s so ridiculous that we cannot recycle. I tried talking to them about it.”
“Didn’t get an answer. But maybe… if we all tried…”
“Wow,” I said, “gute Idee, good idea! Maybe we can all apply at once. Or all sign something.” We stood smiling at each other. He was still holding the bin lid. His wife stood in the tiled hallway holding both their bicycles by the neck, like horses. She waved and I waved and we all dimpled at each other. “A beautiful rest if the day!” we wished in turn, as Germans do.
When they opened the street door I glimpsed a woman walking past with her kid on a little training bike. This is how Germans teach their babies to ride bicycles with such confidence. A toddler training bike is walked rather than ridden as it has no pedals, thus it strengthens one’s walking and one’s riding at once. I heard a snatch of what she said to him: “weil die anderen Leute…” Because other people…
This is how Germans socialise their kids, to keep brewing this lovely society in which if you find a scarf dropped in the street, likely you will draped it carefully round a nearby lantern so that its owner can retrace her steps and find it. The street door closed and I went back upstairs two steps at a time. The Handarbeiter was still telling himself off as he worked. His blue overalls were stained with plaster and he carried all his tools in a large bucket. I loved that people – if not our landlord – care that we should recycle and cherish everything. It seems to me ecological awareness is a form of appreciation, and appreciation is awakeness, is love. I loved that the man who makes brushes by hand as his forefathers did spends his spare time spreading leaflets which speak to our common humanity. I loved that the child who passed our door was looking up from his little bicycle to his mother; that she seemed to be explaining something.