What I Disliked about Berlin

There is an African proverb that says a child who does not travel thinks his mother is the best cook. Well, a child who travels, and still thinks his mother is the best cook, has a point. I was in South Africa for a couple of weeks in 2008. Loved the place, the people, and have planned to go and live there ever since. I went to South Asia, lived there for two years until 2011. Great people. Colorful culture. Beautiful but violent, painfully ancient and slow to adapt to modern laws of happiness. In the end, I couldn’t wait to get back home. I went to Europe for the first time, earlier this year, stayed in Berlin for about two weeks, and I don’t think I was impressed. No, it’s not a place I would ever want to live in!
I loved the trains, and the beautiful architecture.

I cannot understand why so many Africans give up their lives to go over there. I met a Ugandan who has lived there for about ten years. He went as a student, got lucky and got a German wife, which paved way for him to become a resident. But he said it was also easy to become a resident if you learn the language, and that many people get deported because they fail to speak German. There is a place, which the Ugandans call kiyumba, where they take illegal immigrants to learn the language and culture. If you are in the kiyumba, then you are called a kamwanyi. Kiyumba is a kind of asylum, a place to train immigrants on how to become Germans. This kind of contradicts what I hear about how illegal immigrants are treated over there.

Yet, it’s not really this that made me dislike Berlin. I never encountered immigration problems personally, so I cannot speak much about it. Thing is, the place was too clean, too organized, too systemic, too much like a place for robots to live in. What happened to the dirt and randomness and chaos that makes life fascinating? Too cold! I can’t figure out how people live in such a cold country. I went in February, during winter, and they say it was a warm winter. No snow fell during my stay there. But I still hate coldness. It was much like in Nepal, where I had to wear layers of clothing, where I could not get totally naked. Not even while in bed.
Still, the cold would have been tolerable if the place had the human touch. Well, human beings live there, true, but they have made systems to run their lives so much that they have lost what I call the human touch of living. Only robots can be happy in such an environment. 
Riding a bicycle seems a better idea than taking the bus or train.
Take their transport system. One morning, I was at a bus stop. A cold harsh wind was blowing. I thought my face was peeling off. There were about twenty other people, feeling the pain of the gale, and there was a bus right beside us. Idling. A bus with air-conditioning. In it we would have been warm and protected from the wind. But the driver did not open the doors. It was not yet time. Nobody complained. I wanted to shout, to scream at the driver to open the doors, but I kept mum because the others waited patiently, braving the cold, until the scheduled time reached. Fifteen effing minutes we spent there in the cold, and this bus guy sat in the warmth, looking at us as though we were — I don’t know what he thought we were. Polar bears?
Waiting for the bus.

I can’t imagine what it is like in the full terror of winter, with snow falling, or rain, and the bus guy refuses to let people in simply because it’s not yet time! Why couldn’t he let us wait from inside the bus, until it is time to drive off?

Then, just as he set off, a woman came hurrying towards the stop, pushing a pram with a baby in it. She waved, frantically, pleading for the bus to wait. Maybe she was shouting, but we could not hear her voice. The driver saw her, yet he had no expression on his face as he stepped on the gas and sped away. He could not wait a few seconds for the woman and her baby, for then it would mean effing up his schedule, ruining the system. Now the woman had to stand in the cold for another twenty minutes for the next bus.

I wondered how far the mother and her baby had come. Though Berlin seems to have systems to care for disadvantaged people, the insistence that buses and trains only stop at designated spots is a nightmare. If your home is a mile from the bus stop, and you have a baby, or a physical disability, you are screwed. The two weeks I spent there, I was limping most of the time, for I had to walk, walk, walk, and it was such a strain. If they do want to help physically disadvantaged people, then they should go beyond making buildings and vehicles easily accessible. They should make public transport be able to stop wherever such a person wants to jump out of. Like in Uganda, and most of Africa, where you simply tell the driver ‘maso awo’, even though there is no stage, and the bus will stop.

Anti-Nazi grafitti and stickers, run by http://www.antifa.de/, litter the streets.
This sadly means there is still Nazism and racism.

I thought this impersonal thing was only in the systems, but even the people have lost a sense of comradeship. If you do not have a phone with GPS, or if you are like me who cannot read maps because all my life I have had to rely on asking locals for directions, and you get lost, you are screwed. I was going to a party. After a lot of trouble, I eventually found the train that would take me to the place. On reaching, I couldn’t find the street. It was dark, eight o’clock. I asked a woman for directions. ‘Oh,’ she said, with a big smile, ‘you are going to F_strasse? Just go down this way, turn left, and there you are.’ I went down the way she pointed, turned left, and I was not in F_strasse. I asked another person, and she gave me directions again, which I followed religiously, only to find that she too had sent me to a totally wrong place. I was lost. They made me walk around in circles for over an hour, with each person I ask claiming to know the place, and then giving me totally wrong directions.

At one point, I was angry and frustrated, and thinking of going back to my hotel, and then I approached a man, who ran away from me, screaming, ‘No money! I have no money! I’m just a German! I have no money!’ What the f**k was that about? He probably thought I was a beggar, or that I wanted to mug him.

Finally, I met an old man. I asked him if he knew F_strasse (I can’t remember how the name is written), and he told me why I had walked around in circles all night. ‘Don’t you have a phone with GPS?’ I did not. He had a map in his pockets. An ‘analog map’, as he called it, and he was kind enough to stand with me for nearly ten minutes until we figured out how I could reach the street I was going to.

As I made my way to the party, already tired and pissed off, I kept wondering why those people (six of them) gave me totally wrong directions. Did they do it deliberately? Why? Did they just not know their own neighborhood?

I could not help but compare it to a time I got lost in Nepal. When I asked for directions, I ended up in a conversation with the locals. They wanted to know my name, where I came from, what I was doing in Nepal, whose house I was going to, what I had for lunch – and I got to know about them and their families. In Uganda too. You get lost, the locals will give you all the directions you need, and if they do not know, they will tell you so. Sometimes, they will offer to escort you right up to the door you are searching. Asking for directions is an opportunity to socialize, a chance for the traveler and the local to get to know a bit about each other. But apparently not in Berlin.

The trains really fascinated me.

I must say that after that terrible experience, I had much nicer encounters with Germans. A woman saw me at a bus stop, reading the information board, and she asked if I needed help. I said yes, and she did help. Another man saw me puzzling over a map, and he offered help without me asking. It happened more than twice, but the first experience was deeply etched in my head. I never asked for directions again. I instead tried my best to learn how to read maps. One time, I was going to the Neue Synagogue from the Berliner Dome. It was just around the corner, but because I did not trust them anymore, and decided to use the map, I found myself taking two trains and a bus. Its only when I reached the Synagogue and recognized the buildings around the Dome in the nearby distance, only then did I realize what a dork I had become.

Other than the inhuman systems, and the inability to socialize with strangers, the impersonal relationships, the place is bloody expensive. It costs one euro to take a pee! That’s the price of a cup of Turkish tea at the Donner Kebab place I frequented. That’s the price of a decent meal in Kampala. A French woman who now lives there says she makes sure she goes to the toilet before leaving her home, otherwise she won’t be able to afford peeing in the public toilets. 
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