I awake on an island, shut in a box with the constant electric hum of ‘nothing’, that can only be the void of a cream coloured hotel room. I would leave the window open but the traffic outside never eases; the problem becomes one of inviting too much of the outside world in, or shutting it out completely. Sick of the static murmur of inside, I reach for the remote control and flick the TV on to the BBC World News.
Bleary eyed and feeling the crush of recycled air I get out of bed, push back the thick curtains and open the window. I savour the cool air which carries the fresh smell of rain into the room, it’s pleasant but the Berlin weather threatens yet another dull day. The traffic sings its humdrum song along the soaked streets below. Accents of colour break up the view; the grocery store across the road is a kaleidoscope against the wet grey pavement, and a deli’s sign wraps a red sash around the corner of the building opposite. A homemade pirate flag with a spray paint silver skull, grimaces and smiles with the breeze. I put the the kettle on and head to the bathroom, resigning myself to the duty of being awake.
The corridor has a brown carpet which leads you to the lift; apart from the cleaners I never see anyone else leave or enter a room. As I walk past the cleaning cart, the same Asian lady as yesterday smiles at me and says Good morning, in English but with an accent that isn’t German. I return the greeting with a smile, she nods and continues taking the towels from the cart. I wonder, as I have done every other day, whether this salutation is a requirement of her employment? Is she told to be pleasant if she sees the guests? Is she told to speak in English? I can’t deny that my own pleasantness isn’t entirely selfless, she does, after all, have unrestricted access to all of my things.
The lift opens. There are already people in there so I briefly consider letting it go, then I realise it would be absurd to do so. The two women seem to be mother and daughter, their brief conversation tells me that they’re French. Other than a beige coat, the mother doesn’t register, but the girl is skinny and moody looking. It’s only her leather jacket and partially shaved hair that stops her being completely ‘French’. We look at each other in that surreptitious way people do in confined spaces, smiling appropriately if our gaze collides.
The lift stops and the doors open. The mother and daughter exit and mill around the foyer. I head for the door and wander down the street for breakfast.
I order as soon as I walk in, Vital-Frühstück, the vitality choice, a plate full of fruit with slices of cheese and warm bread rolls. I take off my coat, sit down, pull out my book and wait.
The café is owned by a couple, nice people, friendly in the way that looks you in the eye and recognises your face. Thereʼs a group of young American tourists at the table next to me and the caféʼs owners donʼt speak English. Ordering food takes awhile, especially when they get as specific as a ʻsoy milk latteʼ. I chuckle to myself, hidden behind the pages of my book.
The French girl and her mother walk in and take a table. A glimmer of recognition flashes through the girls’ eyes. In a land of strangers, we have become familiar, fixed points in the psychogeography of an unfamiliar city. They order quickly, quietly and without fuss.
A DDR Woman sits by the window watching all of us. She has a halo of dyed red hair, a copper tone which does not exist in nature. Looking at the roots, her natural colour is white. She is in her mid-sixties and wears yesterday’s clothes, a polyester powder blue caught somewhere between the late Seventies and early Eighties. She shops in the Humana Kaufhaus for remnants, not of clothes but of memories of the country she used to live in.
She is one of the many DDR women who totter around the city, displaced by reunification. It’s been said that this is a city of ghosts, and there is nothing as haunting as the sight of the DDR women, clinging to Berlin twenty years after they died. The fall of Communism was always going to leave some people unable to adapt to Westernisation. They wander the streets of Friedrichshain, staring into the middle distance, searching for a place lost to time.
The café owner has olive skin and dark hair which is thinning on top. When the café is quiet, he sits in a side room which can be seen through an adjoining window, and smokes rolled up thin cigarettes. Sometimes there are friends there with him, but he breaks off the conversation whenever there is a customer to cook for.
He brings my breakfast and places the coffee and plate gently down in front of me. He straightens the cutlery as he smiles and says bitte schön, then heads back to the kitchen, temporarily foregoing the tranquility of his room and his cigarettes to cook for the other customers.
Bitte schön confuses me, I canʼt help but literally translate it whenever I hear it and ʻplease beautifulʼ seems like a strange way to say ʻyouʼre welcomeʼ. More often than not though itʼs the familiarity of this language that causes confusion. I canʼt reply to ʻhalloʼ without saying ʻhiʼ, itʼs never ʻhalloʼ or ʻguten Abendʼ. The initial salutation is too familiar for my brain to remain German. I canʼt say ʻApfelʼ without having to concentrate first, and I can never say ʻOrangeʼ with the correct pronunciation of ʻuhʼ for the ʻeʼ, unless the word is ʻOrangensaftʼ, and then itʼs foreign enough to be mispronounced. So, I look at the latte in front of me and think about the refreshing taste of the ‘Apfelsaft’ I wasn’t brave enough to order.
Breakfast looks great but no matter how recognisable or simple the food is, there’s always something about the way it smells that is unmistakably foreign. The bread rolls are freshly baked crisp, rather than reheated crisp. They smell sweeter and taste lighter. I’d never dream of putting together a plate that consists of little dishes of jams and cream cheeses, eggs, a selection of fruit and slices of cheese, but somehow, here, it seems like the most perfect thing in the world and it’s happily consumed.
The café settles at a low, pleasing hum of gentle conversation and the polite chink of cutlery on plates. I watch the couples, the friends, those unfamiliar faces that temporarily constitute my world. The DDR woman talking to the other café owner, smiling happily as she jokes and sips her coffee. She seems content in these simple surroundings, accompanied by old enemies seeking a glimpse into her ghost world. People pass the window behind her, umbrellas up or hands in pockets, huddled against the early spring chill of the rain. The traffic moves in sudden bursts as the lights change, stopping and starting the massive arterial vein of Frankfurter Allee.
A young woman with a large old fashioned bike and a man in an oversized jumper, stand at the midsection of the road and wait for a gap in the traffic. She waits patiently, casually glancing around but he starts having a heated conversation with a young man who has approached them from behind. By the time I realise that the young man is mugging the other, he’s already grabbed his rucksack and ran across the road. The victim pursues him, running straight into the road after the lights have turned green and the cars have gathered speed. The sound doesn’t come from the car hitting flesh, that resonates too low to penetrate the bubble of the café. The action is first, a puppet cut from its strings and thrown across the front of the car. The sound comes from a second car which crashes into the other. A great hollow bang is followed by the shattering of glass, it seems to silence everything else immediately like a universal signal to stop.
My little café family look up, some walk across the room to the window and stare out, protected from the horror outside by the illusion of partition. It isn’t happening in the room so it can be viewed, observed and considered and reaction can be measured.
The cyclist stands at the midsection waiting for the traffic to stop, not noticing that it already has. She stays rooted to the spot, gripping the handle bars tightly, her gaze focused on nothing, waiting patiently. She’s frozen, the statue of a cyclist in a cheerful striped woollen pullover. Slowly her head moves and she starts to look down at the broken glass, and the man who had been stood next to her. He is moving, fully conscious, aware of what is happening. Her legs buckle and she releases her grip on the bike which falls to the floor. Her swaying collapse is caught by one of the motorists who runs to support her. Sirens wail in the distance, making their way along the soaked street.
The ambulance, a great big box of neon orange arrives and obscures the view. The people at the window move a little, stand on tiptoes and crane their necks but it makes no difference, the spectacle has gone. People move back to their seats and their unfinished food and drink, chairs scrape across the floor and the volume of conversation increases when the police arrive.
Eventually the ambulance will leave, the traffic will start to move again and everything that has just happened will fade from view. The glass will be brushed up, the blood washed away and the little bits of brightly coloured broken plastic will become debris in the gutter. In an hour no-one will notice that anything happened, there will be nothing to indicate to passers by that someone’s life was changed here. Even before the ambulance goes, the cutlery scratches across the plates and the conversations shift back to guide books and travel plans.
The DDR woman never left her seat. She looks across to the counter and waves her hand.
‘Kann ich noch ein Kaffee bitte?’ The café owner smiles.
‘Bitte.’ She drums her fingers on the table and turns to look out of the window, watching as the moment gradually gives way to time.