Walking through the park in the unexpected sunshine yesterday I realised suddenly: strolling through summer in Berlin is like strolling through an off-duty circus. People are riding bicycles with no hands, they are taking turns practising walking slack rope, one man is playing the tuba and another is set up with his slap box between his knees. Two Turkish drug dealers have set up an adorable ‘office’ with a plastic chair, an empty red milk carton on its side standing by the path, and a dull red singlet bag bin hanging from a handy branch. It is so patently an office and the office Open that we both start to laugh. On the rolls of concrete piping downhill people are teaching their dogs new tricks. It’s too cold for barefoot.
I was writing in a cafe this morning when a joyous gurgle caught my ear and I glanced up. Two men, both burly, both bearded, both wearing baseball caps, were standing one at either end of the long counter laden with cakes, each of them holding up an infant. It was comical to see them so strongly mirroring each other, in their outfits, in their body types, and seemingly unconscious of it. As I watched, the one on the left, who was ordering, held up his baby and made it wave to the other baby at the other end of the counter, waiting. The babies gazed at one another and gurgled. Behind the counter the staff were laughing. This was our third sunny day since October. It’s easy to laugh when the sun is out.
I was so immersed later that when after a long while my second coffee hadn’t arrived I had to ask myself, did I actually order that? Or did I… just dream it? The recollection had sunk like in water, leaving absolutely no trace. I went on writing. A shadow fell over my page. I could feel all my concentration tightening til he was gone. This is the man, one of two men who come in, visits every week two or three times collecting donations for his wellbeing. This one sells Motz, a street mag for homeless people’s income, and the other sells little slips of paper on which he has written Inspirational Poems of his own. To be interrupted when pen is moving across paper and I have the next five sentences stacked precariously in order on the prong of my thought as I shovel forward diligently – it upsets everything and then all the sparkling world is gone. I have been this way since childhood and no matter how I tried to unlearn it – my mother would say, why can’t you just answer the phone and then go back to your writing? – I can’t. So I was relieved when the guy, to whom I have explained two or three times this need, moved away. But he struck at my heart all the same. He is so unpretending, so humble, so courteous. The next two tables engaged with him but no one would give him any money. This is a hipster cafe, which I choose for its Australian staff and because they play the languid tunes by which concentration is most possible. I am there for hours each week. I thought about how it would feel to come in out of the sunshine on this glorious day, everyone littering the pavement with their expensive prams and their lovely bicycles, and to ask round a place in which people in their new clothes, and Cathoel, are feasting on ten-dollar breakfasts, and to be told: no, I’ve nothing for you, I can’t help you.
I could, but I won’t.
It would feel excluding, is how it would feel. And yet he thanked each table of twenty-five-year-olds calmly, wishing each in turn “Schönen Tag noch,” a beautiful rest of the day. At the doorway I caught up with him, where he had paused to talk with the German girl sitting in the window. She was reaching for her purse so I waited out of range, not wanting her to think, oh – that other woman is giving something, I needn’t give him then as much. I put my finger on his sleeve. “Ich wollte Ihnen herzlich danken, dass Sie mich nicht unterbrochen haben. Das ist wirklich lieb von Ihnen.” I wanted to thank you from the heart (Germans say), that you didn’t interrupt me. That was really lovely of you. His face broke into a wizened smile, though he is young. He put a hand on his own heart. “I recognised you – and that you have told me you are working -” I said, “I so appreciate it. You know if the concentration gets shattered, then everything is gone.” He said something I couldn’t understand, maybe that he does know this, he writes, also. Ah, I said: then you know! And we regarded each other with a terrific fleeting fondness. This is possible in Berlin, I find more of it here than I have found anywhere, even on the terrible subways of New York. I gave him some money, not much, about the price of a coffee, and was aware of the self-serving hope that he would take this as confirmation of our agreement rather than incentive to interrupt me the next time. The guy with the poetry is harder to deal with, with his lambent eyes. I cannot bear to be interrupted to read his verses whilst struggling to write poetry of my own.
I told my companion about this experience, he knows the guys I’m speaking of, and we turned out of the park at the end and came into a thicket of streets which led loopingly round to the big second hand emporium with its American flag changing room curtain. A cardboard cutout stands sentinel in the booth, Second Handy Warhol. It is a relief to need cooler clothes at last. I bought a stiff denim dress which feels like you’re wearing a little sailboat, it stands out like canvas in a gormless triangle and I feel about five years old standing in my bare arms and legs which have been covered since Autumn, I will need to wear several layers underneath this frock until probably June but it yields the promise of Summer to come and the long glorious evenings, the bald European sky.