Berlin Of a Saturday
Ostkreutz S Bahn Station doesn’t look much, though it looks a whole lot better than it did a year, two years, three years ago – when one could hardly find the entrance amid the tangle of brambles, detritus and debris, the echoing steel staircase, the rusted wire and iron railings – but for the preponderance of parked bicycles in various states of decay and disarray.
Still, as the busiest train station in the old East Berlin, and one of the busiest in this hip and rapidly gentrifying but plenty gritty area of Friedrichain, every day Ostkreutz is a coming and going of thousands of passengers and their attendant baby buggies, skate boards, musical instruments, bicycles, bags and dogs.
I love Ostkreutz. it is my gateway to the world. When my daughter first heard me say this, her reaction was “Thank God”. Why I asked? Because, she reminded me, it used to be the South Link Road in Cork which I would defend against its detractors as my favourite artery, my gateway to the world, but now, I had moved on. (The detractors of the South Link Road be many; though less now that the snarl-inducing Magic Roundabout has been sorted out with a multi-million euro fly-over unscrambling the routes to the airport, the Dog Track, Killarney, Cork University Hospital and Schull. It was known as ‘The Magic Roundabout” because it was a miracle if you could to figure out how to circumnavigate it.)
But back to Berlin. The approaches to Ostkreutz may be dirty and potholed and graffitied and flyposted and littered with empty bottles, but Berliners – and those who love Berlin – don’t notice such things. (I do. I love Berlin but it grieves me that such a wonderful, beautiful, exciting, intoxicating, inspirational, mindful, fun, rich place is ruined and by graffiti, which is accepted as “Street Art”. It is not. It is ugly defacement of new paint and plaster work, people’s homes, historic buildings and magnificent streetscapes, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted.)
I walk to and from Ostkreutz at all hours of the day and night, and travel in its trains, gladly and with confidence. I have never had a bad experience and always enjoy the walk and the ride………until Saturday.
Saturday evening in Berlin. The sun has sunk in a peach pink sky, momentarily flashing flame on the steel carriages of a train passing towards Amsterdam, creating one of those glorious city silhouettes of “towers, domes, theatres and temples…all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”
At six thirty I boarded an S Bahn at Charlottenburg on the Ostkreutz route. There was a smell of alcohol in the carriage. Alcohol in Berlin trains is nothing remarkable; people drink by the neck from beer bottles – though rarely spirits – all the time. One gets used to it and it doesn’t constitute a threat as it might – say – in Britain. There was a strong, tall young man in the seat behind me. His hair sprung and hung in long blond dreadlocks around his head and down his shoulders. It was early evening in early February in a northern European city. He was “wearing” a short sleeved denim shirt, open to the waist and denim jeans torn up the front even to his upper thighs, displaying legs badly splotched with sores, bruises, brown and red spots and his feet were bare.
I moved seats up to the very front of the carriage, where 3 women sat in 4 seats. The 2 young women opposite were in street wear for work…. the work of the streets…. again, not uncommon or remarkable in Berlin. These women are experienced enough to dress appropriately for their trade and for the weather. One had on an imitation sailor’s hat pinned to her long thick brown hair, much make up, a short well-worn waisted trench coat missing its belt, a mini-skirt barely covering thin black tights. Her companion had long straight blonde hair, much make-up, a matted faux fur trimmed hooded anorack, black shorts over open mesh black tights and both wore black, knee length, stiletto-heeled boots. They were swigging from a shared bottle and jigging their hips to tinny bass-beat music on their ‘phones and talking loudly. The smell of alcohol in the carriage was from their booze….with the movement of the train, their fizzy wine had exploded on opening and spilled over the floor. Sitting down, I had to move the cork – and an empty plastic pack of cooked ham cuts – from the seat. People eat on the trains in Berlin, but never litter.
I always keep change in my pocket for people busking or begging on the streets or selling the (Berlin equivalent of) Big Issue on the train, and give unquestioningly, but a when a wild looking young man with a wide squat-nosed dog (which actually looked somewhat embarrassed) came a-begging I shook my head…something about him…..
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the half-naked blond hunk-hulk leave the train. Maybe he had noticed the two men entering…… In Berlin, ticket purchase is on an honesty basis, but increasingly, they are doing spot checks. The inspectors always work in twos, and in mufti, exactly like all the other dressed-down riders (though ‘dressing down’ in Berlin is a kind of uniform, a wish for and sign of, acceptance as a local.) They were checking our tickets at the top of the carriage when a trumpet note sounded at the back. Three middle aged male musicians (I would say Romanian from their instruments, wind and an accordion) were preparing a serenade.
The ticket checkers were instantly on the case and as the train pulled into a station, roughly hustled them off. An older couple also alighted – whether in solidarity or because that was their station, I don’t know. I stood up to see more as the train doors closed: The two men were pushing the musicians down the escalator, while the older couple tried to calm them and keep them from physically molesting the buskers. The Ladies of the Night got off at Hackescher Markt, gateway to their stomping ground. The train moved off towards Ostkreutz. Another Saturday evening in Berlin.