24 Hours With The Homeless Scandinavian Who Has Visited Every Continent
Berlin, Germany—July 31, 2016
Two months ago I left San Francisco in hopes of finding a new pace of life. On my last night in town I drank so much alcohol that I woke up fully clothed, sideways in my bed the next morning. Confused doesn’t describe what I felt when I woke up. Bewildered, maybe. Disoriented comes close. Forget-your-first-name-hungover, is about the best I’ve come to an accurate description. But that is four words too long for Webster so when I tell that story I usually leave it at “disoriented.”
This morning is something entirely different though. When I open my eyes and look over to my left I see a naked body and blonde hair streaking down a bare back full of red scratches. Legs that look like they’ve been dipped in a box full of ferrel cats. I look out the window to my right and see the fuzzy outline of Berlin’s TV tower. I don’t need this landmark to remind me where I am, or what happened last night though.
I count the beers. Three by German standards, four by American. I’m nowhere close to forget-your-first-name-hungover. I’m not confused either. I know pretty well what’s going on. But I have a feeling in my stomach similar to the one I had back in San Francisco two months ago.
I hear the body roll over in the sheets, but can’t feel anything. We’re in two twin beds separated by about six inches of designer carpet. The voice says, “Good times, mon. Only good times.” And when I turn over, a Swedish guy in his mid-twenties is smiling at me. He has the look in his eyes of someone who just took a drag of a joint. But he doesn’t seem nearly as confused as I am. It all appears pretty normal to him.
“Last night was good times, mon. Only good times” the voice repeats.
And it was. Somehow, a night that started with a painful workout, that was interrupted by a mid-July downpour, and ended with a homeless guy doing his laundry in my sink was as he said, “Only good times.” With one exception: the smell of damp socks, and well, homeless person in my room, of course. That was sub-good times.
Matias is the sort of homeless that makes insecure sticks in suits feel nothing but envy. He’s cool homeless. He’s “One time Akon’s tour bus picked me up off the highway” homeless. And he is most definitely homeless but the label “Bum” is probably a more accurate descriptor.
Before parting ways at the end of last night’s dinner he told me that he was heading to the park. It was midnight. The streets outside the Indian restaurant were still glimmering a cold wetness. Looking at the massive pack and sleeping pad on his back that extended above his neck I knew exactly what he meant. I knew he wasn’t bullshitting me either. Unlike the homeless person in Paris that I watched con tourists into thinking they had kicked over a jar of coins, Matias isn’t a show man. He’s the real deal. I couldn’t let him sleep in the park knowing that I had an empty bed in my hotel room.
And that’s how a butt-naked Swedish guy, claiming 38 countries, 122 hitchhiking trips, and one close call with malaria ended up sprawled across my hotel room’s spare bed. The naked part I’m still unsure about as of writing.
“Good times, mon. Those were good times.”
On this trip I’m having a hard time with words. Is Berlin weird? No, definitely not. All I can think of when I think of the word weird is those shirts that say, “Keep Austin weird” and the overweight people that wear them. Hipster isn’t right either though. That one brings back memories of a chalkboard in front of some tacky restaurant I saw earlier in the week. It read: “No hipsters or hamsters.” I should probably ask a Berliner what Berlin is, but there are two problems with that idea: I haven’t even met one yet, and if I did I’d be too scared to ask.
“Where are you from?” is a common question here. And it’s almost always asked in English. No one is actually from here, and English is the de-facto language. On bus stops, on cigarette smoke filled patios, at the art studio that I holed up in for a week. I hear the question everywhere and yet I haven’t met one person answer “Here.” There are a lot of Turkish people. On the bus someone told me that Berlin has the second largest Turkish population in the world behind Istanbul. I was skeptical, but hey, these are the things people say off the cuff, the rumors that divorce themselves further from the truth with each pass of the torch. There are also a lot of Americans here. Every year thousands of upper-middle class parents pay $10,000–20,000 for something Germans get for free when they send their kids on exchange to Berlin universities. But the students all come back well-rounded, and the parents earn kudos with their coworkers. Everyone’s happy with the outcome. There are also Scandanavians as I’m learning. But none of these people can help me answer the question of what Berlin is.
In the 19th century Berlin was Prussian. 100 years later it was facist. From the time that the last Allied bombs dropped, to the time a communist leader fumbled over his words in a press conference causing the fall of its famous wall, Berlin was divided. But for the last 25 years it’s been stumbling around for a new identity. Berlin is constantly laying sideways, fully clothed in its bed not knowing what it is. I heard a tour guide describe the situation pretty well when he said, “Paris will always be Paris. London will always be London. These cities have long since defined themselves and exported their image to the rest of the world. But Berlin is something else. Berlin is undefined. Berlin is a city still determining what it will be.” And that’s why I’m here.
I have a theory: I think that by the time “Keep Austin weird” shirts hit the press, Austin lost it. The true weirdness that is. But not because overweight middle-aged men started wearing the shirts. My theory is that before the shirt even hit the press it had lost it, because as soon as someone found the right word to describe it the feeling everyone loved was gone. That feeling of, bewilderment and confusion. The loss for words. Like being a part of a cult before it becomes a religion and Tom Cruise shows up.
There’s a second theory that is a bit more proven. 15 years ago a New York Times columnist wrote a book about a new Bohemian class invading previously poor neighborhoods with high culture and restaurants. He wrote that first gay people invade a place (because society has pushed them out of the wealthy neighborhoods and to the fringes), then come artists (who appreciate the gay community’s taste), and finally, once the neighborhood is sufficiently safe and cool, rich people come. Property values go up, homeless people get evicted, and then liberals take to the streets screaming gentrification and other anti-capitalist rhetoric. Eventually all the creative people leave.
I’ve tried to explain my own esoteric theory to a couple people, but the confused looks usually force me to pivot and instead recite the New York Times theory. *This one time I read a book that said* still works in a city known for its individualism. Conformity, as it turns out, is more comfortable than originality no matter your geography.
On this trip I am the confused soul in this city joyfully searching for words to describe the place. But I’m also a man in transition, between homes and careers. This year I’ve decided to give up my dreams of business to focus on a nagging itch to write. While I search the streets for the city’s identity, I also search my heart for an identity of my own.
My friend and I came here a week ago. I visited earlier in the year and — wow’d by the street music and three Euro meals — decided I would be back. But the Berliners were on to me and my wealthy tech friends long before I came. They decided they weren’t going to lose their city to cheap shirts and capitalist wealth. One such measure to save their city was a law passed that banned short term housing, namely services like Airbnb. Residents worried that if homeowners turned their apartments into hotels, the decrease in supply would cause rents to go up. When rents go up, the artists leave, and the city is stuck with people like me and my friend: wannabes with money. Then they commercialize the place and you’ve got streets filled with cotton tees imported from China. So far the defenders of Berlin are winning.
On Sunday we arrived in the city and booked a hotel for three nights to search for a place. On Tuesday we extended for three more nights. No luck. Not even a single lead on a place to live for a couple months. A couple nights later we extended again and then went to dinner. At the restaurant my friend confessed his doubts.
“Honestly, I feel like we’re just two guys trying to fit in and failing miserably at it. Let’s say we do find a place by some miracle. Great. We’re still two guys trying to fit in with a place to live. Then two months later we leave right as we’re beginning to belong.” Neither of us are willing to commit to a Berlin winter so he’s right. We’re in hipster hamster limbo.
I admitted that I was feeling my doubts too. In my mind, I saw Airbnb’s marketing slogan: “Belong Anywhere”. Even if we weren’t in a hotel I don’t think we would have belonged. Even if housekeepers didn’t knock on my door and barge in every morning at 9am. Even if my diet for the past week hadn’t been Doner and pop-tarts. This would be true in any city, but in Berlin it felt especially true.
At dinner we decided to call the whole thing off and book flights home. A couple mornings later he was gone and I was wondering around alone, aimlessly with 24 hours left in Berlin. Then I met Matias.
If there’s a place that represents Berlin in my mind, it’s Mauerpark. Each Sunday hundreds of musicians, street food vendors, and merchants flock to an old airstrip to create the urban spectacle known as the Mauerpark Flea Market. I’ve never been to Burning Man, but my time in San Francisco exposed me to more than a few Burners. And just about everyone in the park — save the selfie-indulging tourists — looks like a Germanic version of a Burner. Explicit rap, rock and roll, and weirdly popular tribal music. Rainbows, goth black, and the color of naked skin. It’s sensory overload.
On my last full day in Berlin I wandered over to the park in the afternoon. When I arrived I saw a burrito stand. Burned out on Doner, I decided to give it a shot.
“Good food?” someone in line said behind me.
Germany is one of those few countries in the world where I look like a local. Blonde hair, blue eyes. I’m used to the mistake by now.
I turned around and angled my head upward. Standing next to me was a six and a half foot Scandinavian hippie with short shorts and a deep cut shirt. He smiled and sort of bobbed his head in an endearing way. The bob of the head said, “Go on. Say something. Say anything in return and I’m going to send back positive vibes, mon.”
That’s how I met Matias. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how just about everybody meets Matias. The famous rapper Akon probably met him that way when his tour bus picked the Swedish giant up off the highway outside of LA. It’s certainly how I witnessed two dozen people meet him over the course of our next 24 hours together.
I exchanged some small talk with him while I waited for my burrito. And then once the burritos were ready he invited me to hang out with him and his friend from California. After he introduced me to his friend I came to understand that “friend” is a term Matias throws around loosely. 45 seconds later, he introduced me as his friend when he welcomed two Americans to sit with us. Three minutes later he introduced all of us as his friends in conversation with a group sitting about 15 feet away, an oddly far distance to chat with a group. Unless you’re Matias of course.
An hour or two later the first downpour of the day began. I was walking back from the bathroom when the skies opened up and the Germanic burning was reduced to a sizzle. People ran every direction around me. But my eyes were fixed on the hill about one hundred feet in front of me. I could see Matias assembling the last leg of a tent. Inside the tent I could make out two blonde women, a group of new friends.
Once I got in the tent Matias suggested that we all massage each other. “I try to give a massage every day,” he said with his nodding smile. I looked at the two girls sitting next to me. They were beautiful, Scandinavian, and laughing hysterically. We all agreed.
While we massaged each other one of the girls suggested that we play a game. She asked me to describe a box, then a piece of leather, and then a horse. I describe a dusty wooden chest stored in an attic, an engraved leather belt, and a toy metal horse. Apparently the box is meant to be a description of my soul. The other two objects meant something, which I’ve forgotten by now.
A while later the girls, probably bored by my old soul or pained by Matias’ 365 massages a year hands, left. They promised to meet us at a club later in the night which is a promise I’ve known many women to break. Then again, I was with Matias and that alone promised an unexpected future.
At dinner that night I learned more about him. So did the restaurant owner and a man sitting at the table behind us. Matias can hardly go two minutes without looping someone else into a conversation. It’s as if he knows everybody in the world. No matter how far away they sit, or how uninterested they seem, he brings them into the conversation like most people would if a friend walked up to their group at a bar. If you gave me the Matias playbook and told me, “Use this to meet new people,” I’d laugh you out of the building. But I didn’t see a single person reject the Swedish giant in our time together.
Matias was born 26 years ago on a farm in the northern part of Sweden. When he explains this to people he puts up his hand. “If this is Sweden, I was born up here,” he tells them pointing to his index fingernail. His parents were both devoutly religious and until the age of 16 he followed suit. He was a youth group leader in his town. Then something changed in him and he took a 180 degree turn. That turn led him south. When he was 18 years old he bought a pack and a tent and started hitchhiking his way around Europe. As he told me this I couldn’t help but picture all the American students with their packs. The contrast made me think backpacking for 99% of humans doesn’t mean what it did when my Dad was a kid. But Matias is still living in the Beatnik days. On one trip he hitchhiked from Mexico City to Panama. When I ask if he’d ever been to jail he said no at first, then laughed, and admitted he has been picked up by the police for sleeping on the side of the highway a half dozen times.
At dinner he told me that he is planning a sailing trip from Sweden to Spain. He pulled up pictures of the boat and told me that I’m invited on the trip. Then he told me about a second, larger boat. I couldn’t help my American curiosity. I asked how he made money.
“Oh, I’m a prostitute. And stripper. And I do massage,” he replied. He offered it up without shame. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone express as much pride in their profession. “I love my job. I work anywhere. All I do is open my phone and I have work,” he continued.
Throughout the night I watched the reactions everyone else gave Matias when he told them about his work. Everyone was surprisingly accepting, even when he told them that he didn’t distinguish between male and female customers. Then again we were in East Berlin — the more liberal half.
Around midnight we both agreed that the Scandinavian girls had broken their promise. We also decided that the downpour probably kept everyone from going out and reminded ourselves that it was Sunday. He told me he planned to sleep in the park. I objected. And then we were on our way to the hotel.
On the train Matias sat down next to a woman and struck up a conversation. I knew from previous nights that the trip from East Berlin to Prenzlauer Berg would be 10 minutes. And yet in that time, the woman invited Matias to have a drink at her place. I was past the point of surprise. When the woman offered he missed the question though and kept laughing and bobbing his head. (Later he tells me that he had no idea she was interested in him).
In the hotel room I continued to berate him with questions about his life. He answered each one of them, pausing only between trips to the bathroom which had been converted to his laundry room for the night. Then he gave me an answer that caught me off guard for the first time in hours. I asked him what he wanted in life, what he wanted to be when he was older.
“I want to be rich, mon. Oh ya. I want to be real rich,” he said.
I expect this answer from all my friends. In almost every country that I’ve been I’ve heard this answer. The American Dream is alive and well all over the world, but in Matias? That I can’t believe. If he wanted to be rich it seems like he would be already. Granted he doesn’t come off as the most intelligent person in a group, his charisma is something out of a movie.
I started asking him more questions about his work. He told me that he receives 7–10 requests for escort services every week. Shamelessly, I asked him how much he makes per night. Anywhere from $200 to $800 for a couple hours work, he says. Then he flipped out the lights and bellyflopped on his bed.
I can’t say that I’ve found the words to describe Berlin yet. It remains, like that hungover feeling I felt before leaving my life in San Francisco behind, out of linguistic reach. The Berliners, with their liberal housing laws, have succeeded so far in keeping wannabes like me away. But difficult as it is to describe Berlin, its impression is bold in my mind, and that is mostly thanks to a Swede from the tip of his country’s index finger.