Saturday, 11 February 2017

Lederhosen and Black Pudding

On the 20th of December 2004 I got fired from my copywriter job at one of the hippest agencies in Berlin. I was only there as a hired hand to write 20 unique fitness studio prospects for a hip new German fitness chain. I hated everything about this job while probably being envied by other copywriters in less hip agencies. I hated advertising and I hated Berlin. I hated ‘hip’ and hated Germany. I needed a Berxit. It was time for big decisions.

I always rather wanted to be where I wasn’t. Or rather, I never felt a soothing sense of ‘belonging’ wherever I was. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in the German countryside and by the time I was 18, I knew for sure that I needed to run away as fast and far as possible. My mum once told me that when she was a kid in the late 1940s, her parents always warned her not to go too near to a gypsy camp that was on the outskirts of our village, otherwise the gypsies would take her away. My mum wanted nothing more than the gypsies to take her away. There is a great German word ‘Sehnsucht’. A longing, so strong that it is an addiction. Another great word is ‘Fernweh’, a longing for something far away that is so strong that it hurts. I love the German language; I just hate speaking it. Funny eh?

So, back in late 2004 I walked back to our tiny overpriced 4th floor apartment in the not yet hip Neuk├Âlln, not far from the Kreuzberg canal and the meta-hip Ankerklause, and told my English girlfriend that I just got fired and hated Germany. We then spent a depressing and awkward Christmas at my parents’ house in The Village and after that I was ready to roll. We decided to move to Nottingham. Don’t laugh. Please, I can explain. My wife’s parents and lots of friends lived in Nottingham and it was somehow a logical first stop before we’d go to better, grander places.

We left Berlin in a Blizzard. Literally. It felt a bit like the city didn’t want to let us go easily. Driving a van that has everything that you own in the back instantly turns you into a gypsy. It felt great and scary. I always feel slightly illegal whatever I do, a legacy from my time as a juvenile delinquent. When we approached the ferry to Dover, I realised that, again, I was just about to do something illegal. There was a sign asking if you had fireworks or weapons to declare. I had both. Why? Well... on board, hidden in the depths of the back of the van there were a couple of massive Polish bangers from last New Year’s Eve and a blank-firing replica 1886 US army revolver which I had bought at a Berlin Flohmarkt / car boot sale ages ago. Bargain! I weighted my chances, kept quiet, and off we went on to the ferry to the promised land!

When we arrived in Dover, weapons still undetected, I drove for the first time in my life on the other side of the road. “Easy” I thought for about 5 seconds, till I entered the first roundabout. The Germans don’t really do roundabouts. I have only seen them popping up here and there in the last 5 years. There is an element of anarchy that comes with a roundabout. There are rules but at the same time, if you put the pedal to the metal at the right time, you can just slide in front of a car that has officially the right of way. It’s the perfect hunting ground for opportunists like me. Normal Germans prefer proper rules: Red: Stop. Green: Go. Anyway, except from that first roundabout in Dover, which saw me driving round about 3 times until I felt comfortable to leave, I got used to driving on the left pretty quickly. Nowadays I’m fluent on both sides and switching only takes a second of brain-readjustment. Having said that, there have been a couple of situations [strangely always in France] where my poor wife had to actually scream OH SHIT YOU’RE DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!!! to keep us from being killed. I still don’t understand why the Brits have to drive on the wrong side of the road.

When we finally arrived in Nottingham, my girlfriend’s mum (now my mother-in-law) had organised a flat for us in the part of town were crime is high and rent is low. A tiny damp flat which we then filled with all our belongings. In boxes. We didn’t even unpack. We just stayed in that flat for 3 days, being tired and zonked from the Berlin – Nottingham trip, and tried not to cry too much. If I ever felt lost and confused in my life, that was it. We agreed that we had to leave that apartment and some friends took us in until we were able to find a dry house to rent. I’ll never forget what these friends did for us. They just took us in and let us live with them. Beyond that, I was impressed straight away by the general friendliness of people.

After living in Berlin for a decade, that wasn’t something that I was used to on a daily basis. Brits seemed to talk to each other on the street or at the shops. Strange women working at supermarket tills called me ‘love’ and smiled at me, which was very confusing, especially for someone having just escaped a 10-year sentence in the service industry nightmare that is Berlin. Germans in general only ever smile at someone that they already know and like. And especially in Berlin there is a thing called “Berliner Schnauze”, the ‘Berlin gob’. The Berliner is proud of this but it’s really only an excuse to be rude to people that you don’t really know. The Berlin gob is used to great effect by native Berliners and Berlin-immigrants alike. I tend to be a bit grumpy in the morning. In Berlin I can be grumpy all day without any major implications. People almost expect it from each other, and when you have established that basic ignorance and grumpiness as the status quo, it enables you to be pleasantly surprised when people are actually friendly and give you a smile. These smiles, coming out of nowhere, just when you expect them the least, are the daily highlights of collaborative human existence in a city that is built on grit and slight suspicion. Americans must feel like entering a different Universe when being confronted with The Deutsche Grump.

The rudeness of Berlin bar staff is legendary. Contrary to their proud and skilled French counterpart, the German ‘Kellner/Kellnerin’ or ‘Bedienung’ (Waiter/Waitress or Servant) will tell you with every move or sound that they don’t belong there and should rather be somewhere else, a literature festival or the Oscars. You’d be mad to expect customer service from a superstar in waiting. Never expect anything when going out and you’ll be fine. Also, never tip when the staff is grumpy or hapless and grumpy on top. It’s your final victory, albeit pyric. Despite all of this, I still harbour an everlasting secret crush on any ‘catastrophe waitress’. I sometimes picture myself as a grumpy but proud waiter, a job that I’d somehow enjoy if it would pay five times more than it actually does. No wonder these people are grumpy. But it still makes me wonder why very often people with the highest social incompetence end up in the service industry.

The lowest level of friendliness and human behaviour can be generally encountered at the Deutsche Amt. There are two important Amts: Employment and Social Services, with the latter being even worse. Two of my lowest points in life will forever be connected to the German Social Services Amt and the British Job Center. When living in Berlin, I once found myself out of work after a long stint as a freelance musician. Because I was registered as a freelancer, I wasn’t able to claim Arbeitslosengeld / Jobseekers allowance straight away and was forced to go and apply for Sozialhilfe / Social welfare. After three months of sitting in massive cues in dark corridors in grey cold buildings, I was ready to either kill myself or rise like a Phoenix out of the ashes of my shattered existence. The dead-eyed contempt of my Sachbearbeiter / Administrator and his complete refusal to show any human features had taken their toll. I admitted defeat and got myself a job. Any job. The system had worked.

When I lived in Redruth in Cornwall, my freelance work via a temp agency came to an abrupt end and I was forced to “sign on”. So I went down to the Job Centre Monday morning, got in the queue and after a couple of hours I was sitting in front of a friendly chap with a beard. He smiled a lot and talked a lot and listened to my sad story while nodding a lot and then he let me fill in a lot of forms and then I was assured that all will be fine. I was impressed. Really impressed. This wasn’t Germany, the cold Kafkaesque Moloch, this was Swinging Britain! I returned, as advised, the following Monday to look at some job listings, waved hello to the friendly chap with the beard, and then walked back home, assured that all was still great. I applied for some low-paid non-relevant jobs but as it was now week two, I was wondering when the money would come in. I went back two more Mondays, picking up more job listings and applying for more crap jobs and now increasingly wondering when that first lump of money would finally arrive in my bank account. I asked the bearded guy and he assured me that all was going well for me. But I wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t as I had no money. If I’d have been on my own at that stage of my life, there was a great possibility that I’d have ended up on the streets. You know when you sometimes wonder how people end up getting kicked out of their rented accommodation and then end up on the streets? That’s exactly how. Lucky me had a girlfriend with a job and so we made do and somehow got by. After four weeks of zero cash flow, I went to my next scheduled appointment to finally confront beard-man. He wasn’t there. After a lot of waiting and talking and more waiting and a bit of German shouting, I finally ended up with a woman that looked at me like I was a German SS POW. I was by now very edgy and impatient which didn’t really work with her being awkward but defiant. She had done nothing wrong but I was rightly pissed off as it turned out that I wasn’t actually eligible for receiving jobseekers allowance as I still had a temporary national insurance number. Beard-man never told me to go to a special Amt in Truro to get my temporary national insurance number turned into a proper national insurance number. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT STRAIGHT AWAY ON THE FIRST DAY THAT I CAME HERE!?” I shouted at some point, being unable to conceal my utter frustration any longer. The woman now looked even more embarrassed and I realised that ‘public conflict’ is right at the bottom of the Brit-psyche. You wouldn’t expect that after going out on a Friday night in Nottingham but there you go… everyone was now looking at me: A foreigner shouting at staff in the job centre. Well done.

In the end I just stormed out and a month later I managed to get a job in a local agency and I’ve never looked back since. The idea of ‘living on the dole’, as it’s portrayed in numerous speculative TV shows that show the feckless, living a never-ending life of simple benefit pleasures, is extremely alien to me. Depending on the state, both in Germany and the UK, is definitely not my cup of tea.

Back in 2005 in Nottingham and living in some friend’s spare room for weeks, we then found an affordable house and, as I was quickly running out of saved money, I got introduced to my first English institution: Temping.

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