Getting my pocket picked in Neukölln, Germany
Monday May 15th, Berlin
Maybe I don’t learn easily. Or maybe I’ve led a charmed life. I’m an innocent, that much is clear, in matters of street knowledge and violent interaction, much as I pretended otherwise in my youth. But Neukölln, Berlin, at four or five a.m. today, defeated me, and in front of my wife at that!
In my defence, I was tired; it had been a long day, from catching two trains to Friedrichshain after little sleep on Sunday morning, through browsing flea markets in the sun, through mid-afternoon visits to ::about/blank and Berghain (both dance clubs open all day and night, the latter an ill-lit labyrinthine converted power station in which my wife and I witnessed a first for us both: a man copulating in public, his bare ass thrusting, though whether into a male or female partner wasn’t clear, since we turned away immediately — the music, meanwhile, was insipid-to-lukewarm and the air scarcely breathable; we stayed a scant half-hour); we ate lunch, caught more trains and walked kilometres between stations and clubs, then upon our return to our Neukölln apartment went out immediately to eat a second lunch (the first was small), turned around, came home and slept till 9:30–10pm (or at least I did; my wife can’t nap for longer than 30 minutes), got ready, went out again, ate dinner, searched for and eventually found a rooftop bar with obscure entrance via a multi-storey carpark on Karl Marx Strasse, had a rushed drink in the cold (we’d hoped for coffee), searched for and failed to find decent coffee in the nearby backstreets, settled for insipid coffee, rushed back to Rathaus Neukölln station with minutes to spare before the last train, missed our connection at Hermannstrasse, went above-ground and discovered the night bus didn’t leave for 25 minutes, bought still-more insipid coffee at McDonald’s in return for a security code for the black bunker-like lavatory (here — in McDonald’s — a man, young and gentle-seeming, conducted an evidently amicable conversation with figments of his imagination so convincing I had to look again, twice, to make sure no-one replied to him), waited for and finally caught the bus, after two stops realised it was headed south rather than the north (upon arriving above-ground from the U-bahn I’d noted the bank on the corner and oriented myself from it, only to realise later that there was also a bank on the opposite corner); so we waited by Hermannplatz (not Hermanstrasse) station for the bus north, caught it, got off at Janowitzbrücke, walked (in the cold) the rough-kilometre along a soulless Stalinist tower-block- and service-station-lined boulevard to Kater Blau (a dance club recommended me by a local at the flea market), got turned away at the door (Berlin bouncers, I’d read before we left Australia, don’t much like tourists), stood a while in indecision studying maps on my wife’s phone, caught a cab down since-forgotten streets and a still more forbidding, broad boulevard of tower blocks (not a human in sight) to Sysophus (another dance club), got turned away, considered transport options, studied the phone, studied (without hope) the abandoned tram-stop timetable, gazed along the vast empty forbidding boulevard, surveyed the taxi-rank, and caught a cab to Suicide Circus (a dance club, this time in the tourist area), where we were admitted entry (by now it was past three a.m.), danced, drank two shots each of Jägermeister, passively smoked, and re-emerged as the trains resumed service, noting the excited young Americans on the U1 train as much as the phalanx of police (six-to-eight) in Kottbusser Tor station taking statements from eight-to-ten young white Germans (male and female) as much as the young African drug-dealer (self-confessed) who enlightened us, in smooth but slightly garbled English, re the preceding racially-motivated fracas between an unspecified number of young men of (so he said) Turkish decent and the aforementioned young Germans; I shook his (the young African’s) hand apropos of nothing as he left, and maybe should have guessed then that my guard was down, and my wide-eyed “Australian-abroad” persona in ascendance, despite that I’m 43 years old and like to consider myself, if not well-travelled, at least “travelled”, though the truth is, owing to finances and visa-regulations and, let’s face it, laziness and/or cowardice, I’ve mostly moved house (incessantly) within Australia, have spent eight months in Canada and the U.S. and two years in Manchester, England, and otherwise, aside from two weeks in France and Belgium in 2011, haven’t set foot in a non-English-speaking country since the early nineties, when I was last in Berlin.
Should I add here a list of warning signs that all was not well in Neukölln: the homeless junkie(-prostitute?) in Hermannplatz station when we arrived from Tegel Airport late Saturday afternoon; the 8–10–12 seater minibus full of cops that terrorised and stopped traffic with siren blaring as we walked out to Hermannplatz; the second homeless junkie(-prostitute?) a few metres from the station, mouthing words to phantoms and tracing sad shapes in the air; the second siren-squeal and (4–6 seater) van full of cops by Rathaus Neukölln station later that day; the broken glass; the graffiti (more omnipresent than in any place I’ve ever seen, and for the most part mindless tagging rather than street-art, though kind of cool in the message of freedom/anarchy it sends out nonetheless); oh, and the chatroom discussion I’d skim-read before we’d left late on Sunday to go clubbing, in which somebody claimed that Neukölln accounted for 60% of reported crime in Berlin (which supposed statistic I took with a grain of salt though it should, maybe, have rung alarm bells — or at least these many clues taken together should have given me pause).
Later on Monday
I wrote the foregoing in a beautiful cemetery in the former East Berlin — so beautiful, I confess, that the obvious symbolism of my writing there, as I contemplated death and/or injury, didn’t occur to me until I’d stopped writing. It was sunny, the lush grass flecked with wildflowers was sparkling, and the gravestones were few and far-between in that corner where someone had painted “PUNK” and “ZONKE 1973” on the cracked cement wall and I’d lain shirtless and sunned myself on the grass after my wife rode off to browse used-clothes shops and to give me a chance to write. But the symbolism struck me immediately I put away pen and notebook, urinated, and mounted my bicycle to find a café where I could revive my flagging spirits (it had been a late night) and continue writing. The cemetery, suddenly, acquired gravitas, not just the faux/cartoon gravitas of, say, the Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates”, but a real and — I was to find — steadily growing regard for the dead which, though it started (like Morrissey’s) in quote marks (“Oh yeah, I could frame my piece with a ‘meditation on death’”, I thought as — unusually for me—I took the accompanying photographs), slowly grew to tearful mourning and a new understanding of the purpose of graveyards — they’re places where people can cry without questions — because I’d stumbled on something chilling.
I don’t use Google Maps, if I can help it — because my phone (an i-Phone 4S with ageing battery) sucks, but also because by getting lost I train my sense of direction and discover places by accident. So about an hour ago, by underestimating the distance my wife and I had ridden south through Tempelhofer Feld, and not recognising Hermannstrasse when I crossed it, I turned east into what I took for a familiar park (though which park I now don’t know), but which turned out to be a second cemetery (St. Thomas Kirchhof, Google Maps tells me retrospectively), and here, after searching fruitlessly for an eastern exit, had found instead a field of unostentatious headstones attesting to the deaths of various people in 1945. I can’t explain exactly why this so affected me, in a way which the Auschwitz Museum, say, had patently not affected me in the early nineties, and which maybe no more official or elaborate memorial could have, since unlike this unprepossessing small field, flecked also with wildflowers, it could not have snuck up on me.
Death, I’m reminded, soaks into and permeates a place — variously, I suppose, as according to death’s parameters. In Berlin, death on a massive, unjust scale is recent (at least relatively) and institutionalised, and commemorated by multifarious survivors of a multifaceted struggle. In Australia, too, the land is watered with blood — blood shed likewise through institutionalised slaughter — but (for the most part) blood up to two-hundred years old, and therefore more easily forgotten. Nor are these deaths, I imagine, so frightening to the average citizen, nor so much a symbol of what must never happen again. In Australia, ostensibly (for a white person, at least) a safe place in thrall to the rule of law and (for the most part) unafraid of being so, it is possible for a 43-year-old to be this innocent. In Berlin, I don’t know.
Saturday May 20th, Bavaria
But maybe that’s by the by. Certainly it’s a digression I didn’t plan when I started writing in that Berlin cemetery five days ago. Now, having further explored Berlin on Tuesday, and woken early on Wednesday to fly to Munich, and driven — through heavy traffic— to Bayerisch Gmain near the Austrian border, and hiked and explored and bought food and cooked meals and caught a boat across the Königssee to the Obersee and much-enjoyed my wife’s company — now, after all of that, and sitting outside this busy bakery early morning in a small-town square while my wife browses another fleamarket, and knowing I must meet her soon, I’m hesitant lest I “bite off more than I can chew” in the small time I have before we must gather our things and drive to Munich to meet the children. (They’ve been with their real, Bavarian father. We fly to London tomorrow.) As to whether I can effectively revisit that Berlin feeling now, I don’t know, with so much beauty (and, it must be said, safety) in the interim.
Berlin. Neukölln. Corner of Karl Marx and Mainzer Strasses — ie: not quite the gentrified streets north of Sonnannalee towards the canal, nor the semi-gentrified area across Hermannstrasse by the park. 4:30am or thereabouts, Monday, after a long Sunday. Tired and having barely slept all night, we’d exited the train at Hermannplatz and strolled in relative contentment towards Mainzer Strasse, partway along which, in a southerly direction, lay our temporary home in a fourth-floor walk-up, and the promise of sleep. On the corner, on a doorstep in the halflight, sat a figure — the only other person in sight. Harmless-looking enough, I thought, though I didn’t study him. As we passed, he looked up. Feeling expansive, and never having quite adjusted to the big-city practice of averting eyes from others’ eyes, and (I guess) wanting to practise my rudimentary German, I greeted him, “Guten morgen,” my accent no doubt revealing me as a tourist and sparking his response. A moment’s — the briefest — hesitation and he sprang up. He mimicked the friendly tone of a fellow traveller: where were we from, he asked (at “England” he raised his eyebrows; at “Australia” he raised them further); could he shake my hand; did I follow football; yes he was from Brazil — São Paulo (at this I raised my eyebrows, impressed as always by any mention of huge crime-ridden metropolises); and, oh yes: Capoeira! Capoeira! And: Football! Capoeira!
By now, as either his English or his thought-processes deteriorated, or (most likely) he deliberately strove to confound me, my wife and I tried politely to leave, but evidently he had something — some manoeuvre (Football! Capoeira!) — to show me, a demonstration which required his grabbing my arm (lightly) and positioning one of his legs behind me, as if to make me aware of how easily he could trip me, yet all the time with this casual and/or animated and/or reassuring banter, which since I could barely follow a word of it was both confounding and hypnotic, so safe did I feel — though perplexed — that it hardly occurred to me to be frightened, since my interlocutor was, after all, not large, certainly no larger than me, and even if he did know something of capoeira (and granted that capoeira, in itself, did/does scare/impress me) he didn’t seem to wish me ill. At some point, too, he ceased his demonstration, or paused in it, and I again attempted politely to escape, before he started back up — “Wait, wait!” — as if he’d suddenly realised how to best convey his obscure message. By now, as he launched himself again into position, apparently ready to tip me onto the cobblestones, I at last became alarmed, but still retained enough calm to pass to my wife a greasy paper bag containing a half-eaten train-station spanakopita (which neither of us had enjoyed nor intended to keep eating) rather than dropping it on the already litter-strewn ground, and to say to her, “Here, can you hold this?” before at last (lightly, with still some vestige of politeness) pushing him away and adopting a Shotokan “fighting stance”, as I’d been taught over two or more years of twice-weekly karate classes, which I ceased attending barely 18 months ago but which lately, with glute, back and shoulder injuries taking months to heal and my fitness diminishing, seem increasingly distant. Nor, to be clear, was this stance very decisive — not at all the shouted-war-cry “Fuck with me and die” attitude with which I’d been taught to adopt it — it was hesitant, sleepy, as if I’d just woken, confused, from a pleasant dream. Meantime, in the background, I heard my wife’s dismay.
Luckily or not, by then my São Paulan interlocutor had achieved his aim: with a smile as if to say “Ha, fooled you!” and to discount the whole thing as a game, he held out my UK driver’s licence and a train ticket, both of which he’d pulled from the right-front pocket of my (uncharacteristically baggy) trousers, and made to give them back. Sleepily I took them, said, “Yeah, ha, nice trick mate,” and, turning my back, left for our apartment, not seeing the ten (or was it twenty?) Euro note which he then displayed as if to gloat or rub salt in the wound, but which my wife saw as she angrily, and maybe reluctantly, accompanied me home, her heart-rate far higher than mine, I suspect, since she told me later she’d been worried he might have a knife (a thought which, I’ll confess, never crossed my mind), and because it seemed her fears for me were greater — not to say far greater — than my fears for myself.
Tuesday May 23rd, London
“Why did you even talk to him?” she said. “I don’t know. He caught my eye. I just don’t like averting my eyes.” That said, and though as we walked home and tiredly mounted the stairs to our apartment I still felt nothing but a mildly increased heart-rate and a slight stinging humiliation, over the next hours it slowly dawned on me the danger I might have courted and the potential wisdom of keeping to myself. That night (or morning — with the birds waking and the sun glowing through the blinds) I played and replayed the scenario in my mind, trying to decide where and when I’d gone wrong, but really from the moment I’d seen him I’d acted guileless, and until the end my body language had conveyed meekness — a willingness to be walked over, or at least a severe reticence to be drawn into violence. “The only thing you could have done,” said my wife when I expressed dismay at my inaction, “was to maybe push him away harder.” But mightn’t that have escalated the situation further? And though, as I say, I’d trained karate, and felt maybe halfway confident of punching the guy hard enough in the throat that he wouldn’t get up again, or at least not in a hurry, how close had I been, really, to making that decision? And say his talk of capoeira — slight and small as he looked (though then again small people have low centres of gravity, useful in tripping tall people on their backs) — wasn’t just bluster? Say he really had managed to trip me? One thing karate had not taught me adequately was how to fall. No, Shotokan — as my sensei had told me often — is about “keeping your distance”, and I’d failed on that count from the very beginning of our interaction. If I’d pushed him decisively, then, I would have needed to do it hard enough that he was outside of my defensive circle — ie: hard enough, I think, that it would have (or could have) constituted an attack. Likely result? He counter-attacks, quickly, with full force — at which point, given my inexperience, lack of confidence and a likely huge spike of adrenalin, I would have blocked and punched or kicked, hard, as hard as I could manage, with (depending on my strength and level of technique) the possibility of inflicting serious injury or death (since, after all, karate, which was developed by Okinawan villagers relieved of their arms by the occupying Chinese army, is intended to be capable of inflicting death with one attack). As to whether my technique would have been that effective, of course, I’m far from clear — but that’s the problem: I have absolutely no idea. And given my reticence both to risk injury and to cause it, I’m unlikely to find out in future unless I’m pushed. Until then, a philosophy taught me by a scant six months training in kung fu almost twenty years ago (possibly imperfectly understood and/or over-simplified) — namely, that of “yielding” to and/or “flowing around” opposing forces — will, maybe, have to serve instead, unless I learn some other self-defence not so likely to bring situations to a violent head.
And I thought on this, that early morning in Berlin: how that injunction to yield has served (or not served?) me these last almost-twenty years; how five-plus years as a kitchenhand (lowest in the pecking order in commercial kitchens) reinforced it; how, once I accepted that drop in status from hotshot artist to “dishpig” such a philosophy became common sense, given the generally far more time-pressed situations of my co-workers (ie: I simply got out of their way); and how, in a way, my reaction to this São Paulan pickpocket was almost (dare I say it?)… Christian. “Go ahead, hurt me,” I seemed to be saying: “You’ll only hurt yourself.” And I guess, after the fact, that thought reassured me — that it wasn’t just through weakness that I’d let myself be be taken advantage of, but from some sense of morality. That is, it reassured me until a few hours later. Because — what do you know? — first thing my wife and I went out that day after sleeping, to hire bicycles near Tempelhofer Feld, we met the same f**king São Paulan! And this time, my reaction was anything but Christian.
I mean, he could have just kept walking. I was so deep in conversation with my wife I wouldn’t have noticed him. He actually stopped and tried to catch my eye. And then, when I recognised him, he gave me a smarmy, self-regarding grin — exactly the look my rebellious stepson gives me when he thinks he’s got one up on me — and I saw red. I remember saying, “Nah! No way! It’s you!” and then exploding, waving a middle finger in his face, calling him “motherfucker” with exaggerated intonation; and suddenly his grin mutated into snarling rage. I don’t remember his words, and they probably made little sense, but I remember he wound back his fist as if to hit me and I just squinted/blinked (a bad habit I’d tried to break in karate, whenever anyone threw a punch at me) and raised a hand, all technique forgotten, as if at a cloud of smoke or an insect, so little did I take his threat seriously — it was as if I was swatting a fly. And I guess, luckily, I was right: he was all bluff; he lowered his head and quickly walked away, as I yelled after him “Bad Karma!” like a hex; and only when he was a good twenty metres away did he shout something incoherent but intended to be threatening, at which I mimed the wanking of a penis several times life-size and turned, in disbelief, to my wife. But she wasn’t impressed. Why did I even engage, she asked; I should have ignored him and kept on walking. It was “terrifying”, she said, and pretty much immediately I came to see the sense in her view. Why had I engaged? What had I hoped to gain (since the money, surely, was long gone)? And, once again, if he and I had come to blows, was I really ready to follow through? To knock him down in the street in broad daylight for the sake of ten or twenty Euros?
But of course it wasn’t about the money. The same thing had happened to me in Ocean Shores, New South Wales, nine or ten months earlier: we’d just moved house (not by choice) to the cheaper side of the suburb further from the beach, and on my first bike ride (in tightish jeans and foppish shirt, with an undercut haircut — not a common look for cyclists in Ocean Shores, I guess) I was harassed by three young (early twenties? late teens?) “bogans” (Australian rednecks/chavs), who first shouted wordlessly at me from an open car window as it passed maybe a metre away beside me, and then, when I made a fairly harmless “wtf” gesture, returned to flip me the bird and, when I returned the gesture, to bellow “FAGGOT!” as they sped away. As I told my wife when, shaking, I returned home, they were lucky they hadn’t stopped the car, because I was ready to put them — and me, if necessary — in the hospital. Why? Because I don’t take that shit anymore. Because the scars inflicted by two or three years of daily intimidation at the hands of would-be thugs like those guys had, almost thirty years later, failed to heal. And maybe because in all my 43 years I’ve never been physically assaulted by anyone except my dad and my brother. Charmed life? I guess, because random attacks do happen. But maybe I’m also walking some tightrope of judgment. And if I ever really did believe myself in danger, I hope, I’d spring into action.
I don’t know. At this remove, almost a week since we left Berlin, it’s slightly hard to take all this seriously, though as late as last night I found myself thinking it over, trying to decide — again — what I could have done better. As to my meditation on death, it continued two days later in Bayerisch Gmain, where our first short walk from our apartment revealed what appeared to be a war memorial in a heart-stoppingly beautiful small public park. With late sun pouring golden through the branches and hulking stone mountains all around, that place seemed as charmed as a Japanese garden, and I stood and cried at the obvious care and fresh flowers lavished on it by the locals. In the end, my wife and I had a wonderful trip to Germany: the Alps (as Robert Walser wrote) were “more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful.” Berlin, too, was fascinating, and beautiful in places. But at one point I almost tripped up there (or was almost tripped, but that’s really by the by), and for twelve or twenty-four hours I couldn’t have said why I’d behaved as I did and I saw a side of myself I didn’t know if I could accept. Was I strong? Was I weak? I see now that maybe the important question is something else: Am I master of my own impulses? And if not, am I man of war or man of peace? Sadly, it looks to me as if my peace is conditional. Regarding money, sure, I’m indifferent; in a manner of speaking, I’m at peace. But as regards pride, I suspect, I’m still a child, caught in the headlights of my teen years and unable to look away. And pride — as I see in my stepsons every day — is the most abstract, and unpredictable, of motives.
(Handwritten Bavaria/London May 15th-23rd 2017)