I was cycling along the river where the water mets the trees, there is a little grove there which is sacred to me and it seems to be a forest in a parallel universe. It is a dreamy Spring day, grey like the winter but unlike Winter, studded with flowers; and I had just finished all the painful difficulties for the day, spending time in the bank explaining for the fourth time, you don’t understand, my card was lost, I had already reported it and blocked the card before this handsome spending spree happened; and then on the phone crouched on a bench at the local junkie corner explaining to one debt collection agency after another: see, you don’t understand.
Somehow or other they understood. Now all I needed do was scan and email, or photocopy and mail, the stack of documents the nice pregnant police officer had provided to me; and this two month saga during which I had spent entire half days in her company would be finally vorbei.
So I took some time to just cycle slowly along in my billowing favourite skirt, under the trees, listening to the voices of people who were quietly chatting on the benches and one man, very beautiful and with an outstandingly strong, slender ankle cocked, cross-legged reading his book and turning a page as I passed. I saw the glimpse of his natty sock and the gleam of his wonderful shoe. I saw the girl feeding compliments to her baby in its pram, in a sultry coo, and I followed down the path a little sister and much bigger brother, cycling end to end like a tiny chain of donkeys.
Her little legs in their candy pink zebra stripes were pumping earnestly; she barely managed to keep up on her little silver bicycle, and as I watched, the big brother, who was barely pedalling, looked back to check up on her and as he did so, he flung up his hand and opened its fist. Out flew a perfect confetti of torn up bits of leaf and as he’d intended, from her delighted squeal, the fragments fell over her and all around her and it made her happy and it made me happy.
A few weeks back late at night I was cycling home in the dark and my mind was drawn by the voices to the cluster of English-speaking Berliners, or touris, as real Berliners – old school, German Berliners, often themselves migrants who have fled Bavaria or Cologne – sometimes contemptuously call them. Maybe they tend to be loud and expressive; maybe they have money and push the prices up; maybe sometimes ’true’ Berliners can be seen in t shirts which say Berlin ♥ You but with the ♥ struck out; or merely ‘du bist kein Berliner.’ You… are no Berliner.
From behind me a lighted arc flew up and over and it landed in amongst this group who were talking and clinking their beers. It is a delight to young people from Barcelona, from Zurich and Copenhagen, and from Seoul, to learn they can buy beer for about a dollar and can drink it here anywhere they please, just about; when you’re done you just leave the bottles standing for some less privileged person to pick up for recycling; maybe the place feels like one great big nightclub; maybe it feels like a music festival that goes on unending and to which you need have bought no ticket and where there is no ID check. Who knows.
So it took me some time to work out that this lighted missile flying so gently through the air like a badminton shuttlecock was in fact a lighted cigarette butt, and it had landed — I could see it — in the black hoodie crumpled at the back of one girl’s neck, they had started slowly to go, Whut? Hey… and she had turned her head, just slightly, and I could see the dense cloud of her hair and that in another second she’d have swept her curls across the lit butt and she would go up in flames.
I was shouting, in English through sheer discombobulation: Hey! Look out! Hey! Cigarette! There, uh — there on your back, it’s just —
Slowly the group of them gathered what had happened and she stiffened and her friend brushed his hand round the back of the neck and shook the lit thing off and then I realised that the slowly strolling trio who had now caught up with me had sent this flying in on purpose, it was a tiny form of terrorism.
They were Turkish Berliner kids, from the accent, and they snarled at me lazy and unhurried when in English I shouted, Hey, you — next time, don’t throw your fucking cigarettes at people. “Ja, ja, mach mal weiter,” said the girl who was already lighting another, yeah just keep walking, get lost, she was not interested in being told by one touri how she must treat another touri on her own god-given turf.
I was pedalling again as my bike started to wobble and I felt a fear of this girl, with her massive sense of entitlement, and switching to German, hurried, unkempt German, I tried, “That was idiotic. It’s dangerous. Don’t fucking throw your fucking butts at people’s heads.”
And I rode home, past the hipster cafe where I wrote every day all through the winter and which some local person with a very distinctive handwriting had labelled in great big black spider letters out the front where people sit in the sun, “If you want — to speak English — go to New York. Berlin hates you.” I had marched into the art supplies shop and bought my first ever spray can, in a decent hot pink, in order to amend this so it read, “Berlin hates hate.” I put a ♥. Because I so strongly felt that in this city with its devastated history of what can happen once you let hatred of Those Kinds take hold, we ought to be more conscious, and we ought to take more care.
It did no good. My amendment stood for a month or two and then the disgruntled local struck again, writing boldly, harshly over my edited text and reinstating their insistence on hate. It is still a world though where older brothers collect bridal confetti for their playful little sisters; and graffiti and confetti and hurled butts of half-smoked cigarettes conflated in my mind and at the far end of the same street I passed the second instance of this same graffitied complaint which I had also amended, in full view of the people standing outside a restaurant across the street, where eventually the Hausverwaltung sent painters to clean it up by whitewashing the whole conversation away, but not without leaving the love. The painters chose to blot out everything that had happened on that stretch of wall except for the neon pink heart I had left there and there it stands, for all the world like it was put there on purpose, for all the world to see, for all the world — from me to youse.