Monday, November 26, 2012

A Ride on the Berlin Underground

Thursday night, 10 pm. Not at all late by this city’s standards. So early, in fact, that over half the seats on the subway are empty. Not a very common occurrence in Berlin. Earlier, on the way to band practice, it was standing room only. but that’s rush hour for you, no matter what city you're in. Oftentimes, band practice runs for so long that I have to catch the last train home. The last train of the night is always packed - full of roaming hordes of tourists enjoying a night out on their vacation, normal working schlubs who are stubbornly defying the fact that they have to be at work again in a few short hours, floaters and drifters who are always there, the occasional street musician.
As usual, the U-Bahn is deathly quiet. Even with twice as many people, it’d be this quiet., unless one of the city’s many aforementioned street musicians has made his or her way onto the train. My ex-boyfriend’s dad used to say that German trains are quieter than American libraries. Even if he meant it as a joke, I think it’s pretty true. Just as standard as the low decibel level is the unspoken staring allowance. You have license to stare to your heart’s content at people in this country when you're out and about in public. I still have to remind myself it’s OK sometimes, since my parents always taught me that staring was just downright rude. Oftentimes I don’t take advantage of the practice too much myself, but once in a while if someone lets their eyes linger on me for a while and it’s starting to annoy me, I let a big fat stare fly back in their direction and see how they like it. A little taste of their own medicine, and it works pretty darn well. After a second or two of locking eyes, they usually look away. I’ve won a surprising number of staring contests in Berlin.

On the subway, I usually split my time between glancing around to see what other people are wearing (especially now that it’s winter and I need a heavier jacket and a pair of good solid boots) and watching the little TV screens that show “news” which in actuality means German politics, football updates, and details of the lives of prominent American celebrities that everyone claims not to follow or care about. On this particular ride, my tired little eyelids didn’t want to stay open, so as soon as the screen turned to football, I let them slowly sink shut to spend a little time “resting my eyes”, as my grandad used to say (although I’m pretty sure in his case it always meant that he was actually asleep. I was not asleep. I’ve only ever fallen asleep on the U-bahn once, in my memory. But that’s another story altogether).

A few stops later, I opened my eyes to find the train a little fuller. Across from me sat a young woman, whose hairstyle and jawline reminded me of a dear friend back home who I’d once been very close to many years ago. By extension of this vibe of famililarity, I found the woman on the subway to be quite aesthetically pleasing. Employing the aforementioned European powerstare, I was able to determine that while her face reminded me of this friend, her eyes certainly did not - instead of being chocolatey and warm, they were grey and distant, almost otherworldly., like the frost-hued Ice Queen contact lenses I’d spotted being sported by an intern the previous evening at my company’s Halloween party. I expected her to pull my own maneuver on me, to turn her head quickly, sparrow-like, and dare me to look away first. But she didn’t. Her eyes were turned up toward the TV screen, fixed in a vacant gaze, as if she wasn’t really absorbing any of the information being presented to her. Probably just as well. No one really needs to know that Lana del Rey is performing in Berlin on April 15th of next year, unless for some reason you need to use it as a mnemonic for remembering that it's tax day in the US. "Lana del... Hey! Taxes are due." Unlikely.

At the next stop, a young man boarded the train and chose, from the dwindling number of seats, a spot on the bench right next to the young lady. He was dressed exceedingly warmly, even for the cold wet weather, and had shaggy hair poking crookedly out the bottom of his knitted hat, tangled up with a long, thin, ratty scarf that was haphazardly looped around his neck and chest.

In most cities in North America or Europe, I would have probably immediately identified this man as a homeless person. In Berlin, it’s really anyone’s guess. He was young, actually kind of cute, and wasn’t selling a street magazine or asking his fellow riders for money. No, either of those activities would have been normal. Instead, he grasped towards his backpack which was in front of him on the floor, unzipped it, reached gingerly inside, and pulled out a large, pre-peeled citrus fruit. Just like it was something he did every single day, pre-peel his citrus so as to save himself the process when it came time to consume it fresh from his bag on the U-Bahn. Bit by tiny bit, the man started removing the white skin from the outer surface. The motions he used to handle this citrus, which I assumed to be a grapefruit, were exceedingly, frightfully tender, as if he were using a miniature comb to untangle a child’s hair. Each piece of white fluff was arranged carefully into in a neat little pile on his jeans.

By this time, everyone on the train was employing the European Power Stare (TM) to try to figure out what on earth this guy was doing to his grapefruit or whatever. Even Miss Space Case was showing interest. But instead of staring at the citrus or the hands tending to said citrus, she angled her head to her left so she could look directly at this guy’s face, just inches away.

To my surprise, the guy looked up from his grapefruit and stared back at the woman who refused to look away. His eyes belied a sense of defensiveness, at first, but then something he saw in her face made any hints of trepidation go away immediately. A split second later, a faint grin had appeared on his face. And instead of turning away, which is what I in all likelihood would have done, the young lady smiled right back at him, holding his gaze without a trace of defiance or malice.

It was too uncomfortable for me. I had to turn my eyes back to the TV screen. But in doing so, my ears were allowed to take over the observance of this little scene, as hungover as they were from the saturation of spending 3 hours at band practice.

Was ist das?” asked the girl. What is that.

“Grapefruit,” said the man. (I smiled a little at this; I was right!) “Willst du mal probieren?” Do you want to try some?

To my complete and utter surprise, the girl replied with a soft but emphatic affirmation: “Ja, sehr gerne.” Yes, very much so.

The man was just as surprised as she was, apparently, because it took his fumbling fingers some time to tease the citrus sections apart, during which the young lady tried to call the whole thing off on account of wanting to preserve the intact beauty of the grapefruit. But a moment later, he was handing a piece to her, she was biting into it and remarking about its delicious flavor despite its rather pale appearance, and I was trying like mad to appear like I was not bowled over by the whole interaction. My eyes were still fixed intently on the TV screen as I listened to them continue to chat, him happy to be talking to a pretty girl, her content to have him listen to her talk and to have a piece of grapefruit to eat. As I continued to listen to her ask about types of grapefruit and where this particular one was from, my eyes began to flit around the subway car a bit to see if anyone else was witnessing this. I settled my gaze briefly on the girl next to me, who had been occupied with her smartphone the entire time. She did glance up, however secretly, at the pair before re-establishing her connection with her iPhone, and before she sank back into her handheld entertainment, I saw a flash of a smirk pass over her face.

A smirk was all the interaction warranted, I guess. Just a small but impossibly sarcastic smirk, for two strangers sharing a piece of fruit on the U-Bahn. Normally, this might have been my reaction too, but I had seen the way the young woman and the guy had looked at one another, heard the quiet respectful tones they used with each other to discuss the grapefruit that they each apparently held in very high esteem. And me, across from them in silence, next to the girl with the smartphone, both of us disguising the fact that we are staring, hiding our laughter behind our hands when in fact we are the ones who deserve mockery. Us, sitting there in stuffy silence, refusing to talk to the person next to us on the train in favor of the alluring glow of picture screens boasting cutting-edge entertainment. Who cares what the people next to you are up to, what they’re about, what they’ve got going on in their heads and in their lives? The James Bond movie premiered in Germany yesterday. Someone commented on the photo you posted on Facebook. Berlin’s economy is improving and the trend will most likely continue through to next year. You’ve got a new text message from someone who is not here with you, right here, right now. The humanity you could be experiencing is, however, right here, right now, and you're letting it slip right through your fingers.

My stop came. I stood up to exit and in doing so stole one last surreptitious look at the two chatty Kathys, still conversing calmly about citrus.

The little pile of white grapefruit fluff, so neatly arranged on the young man’s pant leg just a few stops earlier, had been knocked over. It lay scattered on the U-Bahn floor, leaving just a few bits of white matter stuck to his jeans.

Friday, November 23, 2012


this year, I am thankful for:
- the opportunity to practice my German every day. I had a dream the other night that I left Germany and several months later was sad that my profiency level in German had slipped. Even when I whine about having to communicate in a non-native language, I am still grateful that I am using it and learning new words constantly here.
- fresh fruits and vegetables.
- being from a place where I can speak my mind and not be arrested or punished by the state for it. to live in a place that has that same freedom.
- living in a developed country.
- readily available high-quality coffee and beer.
- a wonderful apartment with a lovely roommate in a fantastic neighborhood in an amazing city.
- expat friends in Berlin that are having experiences similar to mine. the fact that we can relate to each other about these experiences.
- native German friends who are patient with me when I make grammar mistakes, who enjoy practicing their English with me, who bring me into their world and make me feel more at home here.
- Seattle friends who make an effort to keep up with me even though I'm thousands of miles away.
- Family members who love me even though I haven't been home for the holidays in two years.
- Skype, so I can call these family members and let them run me around my aunt's house as I sit trapped in a laptop.
- an Ersatzfamilie as found in my band, with whom I enjoy drinks, laughter, and lots of music making.
- techno clubs so I can dance the night away if I want to.
- public transportation so that I never have to drive.
- abundant food so that I never have to go hungry.
- clothing so that I never have to be cold.
- my two bikes, even though I am always looking for new ones, I love the bikes I currently have. they get me to work every day. they let me get exercise in a manner that I throroughly enjoy.
- the resources to be able to travel the world, meet new people, see new things.
- my skills and talents, even if I don't use them to the extent that I should.
- having all 5 senses.
- having all 4 extremities.
- having my health.
- being an adult and getting to do whatever I want to do.
- being a citizen of a US state that has the good sense to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage, creating a better, more equal life for us all.
- döner kebap.