Random snapshots of just-being

Another set of impressions of the beauty of small lives hiding in the darker corners of a metropolis


In the free shop, from the corner of my eyes I notice two of our regular guests exchanging a piece of clothing. One of them is a fanatic knitter, always scanning the shop for left-over pieces of wool. She shows a sweater which the other customer liked, but which was just a bit too short, and therefore put back in the racks. The knitting lady secretly took the sweater home,  found a matching color wool, and made the sweater just long enough. Now she surprises the other regular with the finished product.

One of the alternative projects organizes a small protest against gentrification in front of their “shop”. It rains, an icy rain, and people dance with their scarfs pulled up to their noses, gloves and beanies on the jungle beat. One of the regular, more run-down-looking, guests of the foodsaving brunch passes by, asks me what is going on. He introduces me to his boyfriend, a far younger, tall, and good-looking blond guy. Just as I wonder about the combination of the two, the older guy quickly continues: “you know where to get a beanie for him for free? His ears are freezing, and he doesn’t own one”. Only then I notice the slightly absent look in the eyes of his companion and realize who’s taking care of who.

A former roommate who fathered 23 little black & white rats
A former roommate who fathered 23 little black & white rats

On my way to work, I see a plain looking lady with her – obviously mentally disabled – daughter sitting on a bench, waiting for the Ubahn. In front of her feet, there’s a huge cage, with a small white & black rat feverishly washing itself. Next to her daughter, there’s another cage, full of straw and probably also full of cuddles. Walking along the streets near Checkpoint Charlie on the way back, I see something moving from the corner of my eye. I look, and there’s a tiny little brown mouse, looking back with beady eyes. Must be rodent day today.

During the foodsaving brunch at the end of the month it is busy again. Many of our customers have a bit of month left after the end of their money. One of the guys tells me, we saved him again, he hasn’t eaten for two days. Another guest counters: Berlin isn’t a city at war, you can always find food here. I just politely step out of that discussion. A bit later, one of the other regulars brings me a gift. I always walk around with lots of black markings (I don’t call it make-up, too many people ask me if those markings are tattoos…), so she presents me with an eye-pencil, and look, it is even still packaged. I’m very happy with it, because maybe it’s a small gift, but she obviously got hold of it thinking of me (though I actually don’t want to know how she obtained it.. I’m afraid she took an, albeit small – risk for it).

Rodent-On-Wheelz - doodled in the metro
Rodent-On-Wheelz – doodled in the metro

Doodling one of my twisted kritters in the metro coming back from a noise gig, I notice the guy on the opposite bench secretly glancing at my paper. When I get up to catch the next line, he shouts “wait”, fumbles in his backpack, and hands me a flyer of another music event the next week. I look at it only when I get out and just have to laugh: how come in a city of millions, a guy looks at my drawings, and gives me a flyer for an event with experimental and industrial bands I happen to like. Not exactly mainstream, if 100 people attend to something like that, it’s a lot.. so this is just a bit too much of a coincidence. Just before the doors of the metro close, I walk back to stick my head around the corner “I was already planning to go there, but thanks”.

There’s a huge protest against the “danger zone” which was forced upon a part of the neighborhood a few weeks ago, resulting in dozens of cops invading squats, stopping people to ask for IDs, closing off streets and a general feeling of unease towards this “surveillance” from the people living here. Surprisingly – also for the organization – a couple of thousand show up. The atmosphere is peaceful and joyful. I watch someone I know making soap bubbles for the refugee kids hanging over the fence of their “emergency shelter” in front of which we gather. They don’t really have a clue what the demonstration is about, but sure are enjoying the soap bubbles. Afterwards, I realize you shouldn’t breathe in those bubbles when trying to catch them in your mouth. Still coughing up a soap mixture hours later.

In the free-shop, one of the regular customers shows me something undefinable she found, and asks me if I think it could be made into a lamp. She can’t do any “real” work, she tells me, but, well, you have to get under the people, so she spends her daytime at a “disabled center”. She’s always looking for stuff she can rework in something else, then brings it back to the shop. And after more than 15 years of “well.. it’s a way to stay social, sitting at home is so boring” she has become quite capable in upcycling stuff. I don’t think she realizes she has been pioneering a recent trend among the more well-off citizens for such a long time. But well, she doesn’t really have a choice: her creativity is caused by being poor.

Berlin. The end of winter. But still winter. Not that Berlin people care. February is still here, and already the smell of smoke of a campfire lingers in my hair. Walking past the Boxi square with minus 5 or so, I hear music coming from a group of people playing while sitting on the swings and the slide of the play-ground.

On one hand, yes, there’s literally murder in the streets: a guy bleeding to death after been stabbed by unknown people right in one of the busiest club areas. A gang racketeering a small underground club for “protection money”, so the people decide to stop their events, cause it’s not safe. Cops finding all kinds of excuses for breaking into an alternative project and confiscating dangerous goods such as heating-coal, fire-extinguishers and small bags of garbage. It’s like the alternative scene is being squashed between organized crime and “law and order”. On the other hand…. in the little dark and hidden corners, where people sometimes have no choice but to be resourceful and creative, dreams and ideas are kept alive, solutions are found by cooperating and making use of what is at hand. Just like the little rodents which you almost accidentally find in unexpected places at unexpected times, it’s hard to exterminate dreams and ideas. Thank goodness…


Impressions – 50 Shades of Dirty Snow


Winter isn’t just coming, it has arrived.

I never was a big fan of winter. My body is badly isolated by itself.

But ever since I started living in this city, I truly started hating it. Not just because winters are colder here (they are….). But how it transforms this city, its people. Hibernation strikes. People hurry from the metro stations to the next warm place, and don’t stop to talk or look around. They look at the ground, to plan their next step without slipping, and don’t smile or are open for their surroundings.

The city I lived in before I moved here was grey all year around. Grey sky, grey river, grey buildings, grey people. In Berlin, with all its parks and trees, and its inhabitants who love living outdoors, the difference between summer and winter is huge.

A splash of color on the Boxi Sunday Flea Market

Snow doesn’t stay white in a big dirty city. And in a poor city, it isn’t cleaned away either. So it turns grey. Light grey in the parks, since smog and soot is everywhere, thanks to the traffic and the coal heaters. A darker shade on the sidewalks, where it mixes with the gravel. Almost black on the roads. Or it turns red and pink, where the remains of new year’s eve fireworks are still hidden underneath. Or brown and yellow, since there are a lot of dogs in this neighborhood.

I remember one winter, which lasted for four months, when at Easter, it finally started thawing. And slowly, under layers of snow and ice, the confetti of New Year’s Eve resurfaced in front of our house. When the never too fancy smell of this city became even worse, since four months of dog shit and piss thawed out in a few days time.

Heaps of snow on the saddles of the bikes in my backyard. Nope, no biking in Berlin Winters

I remember my first winter here. When in October, after I peeled off layers of isolation when arriving at a party, a friend of mine (after giving me the nickname “Onion” because of all those layers) asked, “when do you stop riding your bike?” I didn’t understand the question.  “What you mean, when? Till what time at night?”. He sighed, and asked again. And I still didn’t get the question. Till he reworded it: “When is it too cold for you?” I laughed. I’m DUTCH. There is no weather where we stop riding bikes! Until my first winter. When, stubborn as I am, I kept trying to go with my bike. With. Not on. I spend one winter pushing my bike through the heaps of snow the city workers shoveled from the bigger roads onto the bike paths. Or tried to maneuver the wheels of my bike without falling off through the frozen tracks cars made on the smaller roads. I gave up after that first winter and went native.

But there’s plenty of people stubbornly refusing to admit winter has arrived.

Almost every small cafe still has tables outside. With ashtrays, candles and blankets. You see people trying to eat their food with gloves on their hands. The cutlery is just too cold to touch with your bare hands.

At a traffic light, a senior citizen is stuck in the snow with his wheelchair. I help him get unstuck, ask him where he wants to go. And end up pushing him over the icy sidewalks full of “false tracks” and through a park to his nursing home. How the hell did he manage to escape his nurses and get as far as those traffic lights? “I never depended on anyone” he grumbles, admitting defeat.

Also in the caves we huddle in, hiding from the cold and the grayness outside, the beat goes on…

At the foodsaving brunch, an small (smaller than me!) older guy with a very interesting face folded into itself, with a cap too big for his head protecting his ears and wearing at least two jackets on top of each other, takes some of the vegan potato mash. He puts in his mouth, munches, stares for a minute, munches again. Comes up to me. Accusing look: “Is there mustard in this?” Erm.. I don’t know. Could be. We don’t make the food, we only redistribute it. He groans, hands me his full plate. “I hate mustard”. I point out there’s plenty of other food, he should just watch out with the chili-sin-carne, it’s pretty spicy. He groans again. “No teeth” he mumbles, looking down to the floor. Well, that explains some of the interesting folds. One of the other guests overhears the conversation, opens her bag, takes out one of the boxes with food she packed for her kids, and, without a word, fills a bowl with rice porridge and hands it to the guy. His smile is worth millions, even without any teeth.

A guy walks around the place barefooted, leaving little puddles of melted snow. Now I do know some people who, out of principle, go without shoes, and walk barefooted 7 out of 12 months (and somehow manage to avoid all the broken bottles or still burning cigarette butts). But this is mid-winter. When even the hard-headed fundamentalists of the callous-feet-church, abandon their faith and start to be practical. So I speak to him, and tell him about the free shop, where there might be shoes his size. He tells me this would be very unlikely, his feet are size 47, shoes that size are not common, and yes, pretty expensive. But I shouldn’t worry, he does have shoes, they just need to get dry again, and points to one of the tables, where underneath, some really worn down sneakers and a pair of socks are standing close to five candles next to each other.

Pigeon Nest in winter. Its inhabitants went for warmer places.

People tend to stay at the brunch far longer than in summer. Long after the food has been eaten or packed. Quite a few of our guests don’t really have a choice about staying indoors or go outdoors. In a strange way, it improves the atmosphere. People tend to talk more with each other, socialize. But I really feel sorry for one guy who fell asleep on a couch, and who I had to wake up and tell to go outside, because we have to close the place up again.

It’s winter.

By now, rain has come. The last remains of ice slowly melt away. I can’t help myself. At every corner, I test if there’s some lose ice, and kick a brick of dirty snow on the road, so it melts faster. Can’t help myself. I hate the winter in this city.

But it will snow again. Snow which will turn grey, black, red and yellow. Just not green…

Impressions – Random Snapshots of Humanity

Random snapshots of people in a big city’s underside – how human we are…

  • Mummy takes her little son along to the giveaway shop to bring the toys she sorted out. He sees a box with toy cars to be given away on our shelves. Shouts out: wow, those are exactly the same cars as the ones we have at home. Mum tries not to look guilty. She was here last week too to bring stuff and secretly unloads another bag of toys behind his back.
  • Foodsaving brunch. A guy with bad teeth and probably no money to spare loads up his plate, and fills a container for a friend. First time here, and he thanks us so much: his housebound friend only gets 10 minutes a day for household help, barely enough time to warm up a microwave meal. And finally he can bring his friend real, good, food. He’s so happy, not so much for his own plate, as for the tasty food he can bring his friend.
  • A homeless guy has taken up residence on one of the wooden benches in front of the free shop. No matter how much we try to convince him to come in and get some free hot tea and cake in a warm place, he proudly refuses, and rolls up in his sleeping bag. The evening before I had a little chat with him. He enjoys the clear skies and the stars, even yes, it is actually too cold to sleep outside. One of my colleagues tells me, the only offer he actually took up, was the offer of the house to take a shower. When I leave the giveaway shop, there’s loud snoring coming from the sleeping bag, and I notice someone passing by has covered his sleeping bag with another blanket.
  • A team of people comes in half-frozen through the wet snow for the hot soup at the foodsaving brunch .They just organized a friendly football match with a group of refugees who just arrived in the neighborhood,. One of them asks me in the kitchen if it’s ok if the refugee team joins us for the food too. Of course. The only problem is, just one week ago, when the foodsavers found out about the shelter and started bringing food to the refugees, they were told they sometimes get too much food, and well.. now that food is saved and brought to the brunch. So those refugees might actually get the leftovers of their last night’s meal if they join us today.
  • One of our regular guests in the giveaway shop is in desperate need for help. She’s more an alternative minded person and likes bright colors and “india” fabric. But now she has to attend a classical concert of her grand daughter, who gave her a “dress code”. We have a lot of fun dressing her up in “classical” style… and she is semi-shocked, but also pretty satisfied when she sees the result in the mirror.
  • Foodsaving on the week market, and we have like boxes and boxes of prunes which need to be eaten the same day. Me and a new foodsaver bring it to one of the house projects, where they organize “cooking and eating with and for homeless people”. Immediately we are invited for the food, but no, we just want to get rid of the prunes. Quickly the plans are made for prune pie, and the spokesperson, in between calmly pointing out to a homeless lady “no smoking while other people eat” tells us there’s another initiative for involving homeless people to help themselves, but the source for the food ingredients is drying up, He emphasizes it is so important not to treat homeless people as if they are little kids, but to take them serious so they can get themselves out of that situation, with a little support. The guy obviously knows from personal experience what he is talking about, and you noticed how much the (still) homeless people respect him.
  • A woman comes in the giveaway shop with two little refugee boys. One speaks a bit of german, the other one only english. Big-eyed they look at all that stuff, and shyly ask if they can take some of the board games and puzzles. The woman tells them not to take everything, but leave enough for other kids. They politely nod, and make an obviously huge effort not to go wild on the cakes we offer for free. Then a bunch of german school kids storm the place… going through all the cakes, and the shelves. When I put a hold to their enthusiasm the moment they want to take a pair of crutches, they tell me, ok, they would only take stuff if they could really use it, for a school play or so, and then return it. After watching this, the refugee kids lose some of their shyness, and not only happily consume their cakes, but also find out there’s a piano… Which after 10 minutes, we wished they hadn’t.

Impressions – The city through old eyes

Walking through the neighborhood with my 78-year old mum visiting me, I see someone I know standing in the door of one of the local squat pubs. So I go over, and while my mum admires the huge murals outside. I chat with this fellow-foodsaver. The pub is a distribution point for saved food, bread & cake have just arrived.

So I tell my mum to go inside and take some. She obviously feels a bit awkward, until one the people outside, an elder, broadshouldered batcaver all dressed in black and wearing a Crass shirt and a nice fluffy mohawk, steps into the doorway, and almost knightly and very insistingly invites her in. A bit shy, she has no choice but to step inside, still feeling very out of place and trying her best not too look at all the weird hairdo’s and tattoos. Then she discovers the cakes…. and yes, they’re fresh from the bakery, and yes, they are for free…. We didn’t stay for a drink, but my mum immediately popped into the small art gallery next door to have another look inside :).

Thing is, sometimes what surprises my visitors says more of how my original country has changed, than about the more positive aspects of this city.

My mum wondering how all these little craft and other shops survive and aren’t taken over by huge chains. Enjoys the cheap indian food, and swallows hard when her wine arrives, the glass is so big. Stopping at a supermarket open til midnight, and my mum exclaiming how cute, how cute, and I wonder why, it’s just a very normal supermarket, until she tells me, there’s only one girl behind the counter, this late at night, and nobody thinks it’s dangerous. I of course have to inform her about the not-so-nice backgrounds, no minimum wage means, yes, the food is cheap, but either the owners works at least 12 hours a day, or that the bread is so cheap because the person on the other side of the counter works 40 hours a week, and still is dependent on “social service money”.

But yah, I rather live in a poor city which smells bad, is dirty, and where the drunks hang outside, than to worry about walking the streets alone after dark, my mum actually asked me if it wasn’t too risky for a woman on her own.

Impression – Getting rid of saved bread

Picked up 30 kilos or so of bread, rolls, and cake at the bakery again. The Free Shop, where I usually distribute the bread is closed, so I step on my bike and ride to all the spots where I know people are begging.

Group 1 is sitting near the metro station with a sign “please donate for weed & beer”. But they also happily take cake and croissants. Something big with beard, belly and lots of tattoos shyly asks if he can take a few rolls for the next day. And  he discovers the rolls with poppy seed.. he tries to hide his eager, so I say yes, please yes, take it, I have another 25 kilo to get rid off.

Group 2 includes a guitar player busking with a djembe player and about 7 people trying to collect money from the people walking past. Especially the cakes are appreciated. One of the women delves out a banana-chocolate-pudding thing from the bottom of the carton box and completely melts. Funny how these oso-scary beggar punks turn out to be in fact extremely polite. For sure when it involves chocolate.

After 5 groups of people hanging on the streets I still have too much bread left, so on to one of the local squat pubs. Unfortunately, it still closed. Outside a group of backpackers sits on the sideway making music, and I manage to upload them with another bunch of free bread. Yes, for free, now will you please take it? Backpacks are opened and the bread packed. Except by one guy, who just looks at me and says “you completely flatten me”. No, he doesn’t want any bread. And keeps looking at me in utter surprise. I noticed before, I seem to attract the people marked by life.

In the mean time, the people in the pub hear me talking to the people outside. Ok, the bartender still hasn’t arrived, so officially the pub is closed, but yes, please do bring the food inside. Thank goodness, I finally managed to un-bread my bike.

Blurp – Saving spring fruit in winter

One of the things learned from foodsaving: some fruits, such as strawberries, just don’t taste that great out of season. *highly anticipating but now disillusioned* *humpf*

Intermezzo – Foodsaving (shameless short promotion)

Sometimes you wonder when the “saved” food from the market is in a better condition than the food you bought and has been hiding in your fridge for a few days…..

Oh, and on a side note.. saving food is less stress than actually buying the stuff in a shop: it surely saves you the trouble of making the decision what to eat: you just have to make do with what you get (and you get to know the shop owner which makes it more pleasantly “shopping”).

And end the non-shopping by drinking tea discussing the different views on life a former east-german dissidente, a wicca from Bavaria and an ex-punk toxicologist can have

Blurp – Freezing with Vitamines

Outside it’s minus 3 degrees, and I’m actually making a fruit salad of honey melon, bananas, kiwis, grapes & other fruit to go with the marinated tofu, all “saved food” from the local market…

Me guesses this will be the first winter I can actually afford (mostly because of my principles of only buying, and I mean buying, locally grown, organic, food) getting a fruit overdose.

Saving food at the market is great, the people from the stands even gave us hot chocolate (and hot meals) so we could keep on going collecting. Oh, and most of the food goes to “good causes” (it’s usually so much, we can feed a lot of people) or we re-distribute it: on the way back I gave a homeless guy some of the bread), but I don’t mind grabbing some of the leftovers.