How living here ruins your language skills

One of the weird things living in an international city is what happens to languages. How they shift, merge, mix, and get combined in a 100.000 different ways. How this on one hand improves your language skills, and you start recognizing languages, even when you don’t speak one word. And on the other hand, you tend to lose the skills in each language by itself. Because. You start combining yourself. The languages merge in your head. Or because some words from a language are simply untranslatable and you need that one specific word to describe exactly what you mean. 

During my shift at the free shop, I take a small cigarette break outside. One of the many people bringing stuff pops outside quickly. Points at my shoes. What size do you have?  “38” She grabs into the bag she’s carrying, and takes out never-worn sport shoes “Here, for you, you take them”. Pushes them into my hands. I smile, sport shoes aren’t really my thing, but I appreciate the gesture. She goes through the t-shirts we have outside, looking for something for her 15-year old daughter. Tells one of our regular guests her daughter is much bigger than her. She’s vietnamese, the daddy is italian. “He’s a BIG daddy, so I have a big daughter, much bigger than me”. The other customer asks what language they speak at home. “Well, german of course”. “You didn’t teach your daughter vietnamese?” She shrugs. “We live here now, no use for my language”. She asks me how old I think she is. I’m really bad at estimating anyone’s age (and I don’t care anyway), so that’s what I tell her. “Ah, that’s always what people tell us asian people, that they can’t tell our age”. She shrugs again, this time at the prejudice, it’s just how it is.

Just a sunny day at Tempelhofer Feld. My family is visiting, and we’ve decided to take the kids for some biking, skate-boarding, kite-surfing, and well, anything else you can do at an old airport-made-free-space for all. While we walk around the collective garden, a young kid climbs one of the self-built constructions in that garden, a wooden airplane. In a mixture of german, american-english and chinese he starts pretending to be the pilot. Mummy and daddy arrive, combining words from the same languages. After we leave the collective garden, we walk past the barbecue area. Where, no matter were people are born, or wherever their parents or grandparents were born, they have all adopted the favorite german summer hobby “Grilling”. A few Roma families have started early by roasting whole pigs. One of their small dogs starts running with us, his not-so-skinny owner trying to catch up. We fetch the dog and give it to him. Hearing him “tut-tut”-ing and scolding the dog in his own language while carrying it back. We stop at a coffee stand, where the guy serving the coffee easily switches between italian, german and I guess russian, depending on who he’s serving. When we walk away, I ask the kids to listen to the people around them, and tell me how many languages they are hearing. After one hour, they give up counting.

In the back of the free shop when hanging the t-shirts to the t-shirts and the pants to the pants, I overhear some broad-shouldered guys going through the children’s clothing. They keep repeating “dobre, dobre”. Since this is the first word I ever learned in serbocroation/bosnian,  I can’t help to ask them what language they are speaking. We’re from Serbia, they tell me. Stop themselves: “but we’re not serbian,  we actually have our own language, but we also use many serbian words”. When I tell them I’m planning to learn serbocroation, and happy I at least recognized the language, they smile. “It’s a beautiful language”.

A woman comes in looking for black shoes and black pants. It’s not for her, but for her afghan friend. He’s looking for a job, has been invited for a job interview and wants to look smart. We go to the shoes and the pants department together, and find some, but she’s not sure about his size. I notice when she talks about him, she suddenly loses her german language skills, and starts using Farsi words, though she’s most certainly a native german, from Sachsen if I’m not mistaking her accent. In the end, she decides he better come to the shop himself to try the stuff on, she’ll come with him to translate.

While passing through the – rather full again – shop, I hear one of our older customers compliment a younger one trying on a beautiful velvet jacket. She excuses herself, she’s portuguese, her german isn’t that good yet. The older woman just automatically switches to english, repeats the compliment, and they discuss the problem of having a cat and velvet clothing.

I always like to play some weird music from all over the world when I do my shift. When I play some music from Lapland, a huge smile appears on the face of one of our guests. She hasn’t heard yoiking for quite some time, and starts singing along in Sami. Another time, when I was playing some music from the balkan, I couldn’t help dancing a bit, and one of our regulars, who likes the irish line-dancing starts wiggling her toes. While we combine my tribal fusion moves and her irish steps, from the corner of my eyes I see how the faces of a few women from somewhere south-east of here light up, and they stop going through the clothing and, giggling a bit, start moving to the music too. The language of dancing is universal, even when the moves are like different accents.

It’s always fun to surprise people by starting to talk to them in their own language because you recognize the accent in their german. Especially a not-so-common language like dutch. The short confusion on their face followed by a happy “what? you’re dutch?” is worth it. At work, some of the projects which I take care of like to surprise ME though, when they recognize the dutch accent in my german, and practice the (sometimes little, sometimes a bit more) of dutch they know. One of those people told me, though being german himself, he has a dutch wife. Funny how recognized where she was born because of the accent he had in his dutch (except the german one of course).

On a random friday at the free shop, I made some fresh peppermint tea with the herbs I saved with foodsharing the day before for our guests. Unfortunately, it’s not that popular. On a regular basis, people start telling me what kind of OTHER mint, from moroccan to vietnamese they prefer. Just not regular peppermint. In the end, a discussion arises between our guests how many sorts of mint there actually are, but the tea stays undrunk. Next time I’ll mix it, just like the languages we use.

Just after I close the Free Shop and start the cleaning and sorting, I hear a knock at the window. Two kids around age 12. I point to the sign, and say, sorry, we’re closed. They look a bit disappointed. But ah well. I go back cleaning. They persist in knocking. So I open the window. They point to a nice blue and yellow bike behind them. “We want to give it away”. I have to tell them we don’t have enough space for bikes. Oh. Disappointed faces. “We tried to give it away, since it’s such a good bike, and we’ve outgrown it. But everyone thinks we have stolen it.” They shrug, used to being misjudged: though speaking perfect german – except for the heavy berlin accent – they’re not exactly blond & blue-eyed. I go into the back, take a piece of paper and a pen. “Here, write “for free” on it, and park it against the fence over there, it will probably be gone soonish”. “Can’t you write it, we’re not german” “Neither am I”. Smiles on their faces. “You’re not?”. I laugh. This part of Berlin, how many people here are german, I wonder aloud. They start laughing with me. I write the sign for them, they stick it to the bike, park it against the fence, and themselves on a bench near it. Waiting for it to be taken. When I leave the shop, both the bike and the boys are gone.

Heading home, I pass the local squatting pub. I hear people discussing their favorite bands in german, english, spanish, french and dutch. The sign of the irish small restaurant on the corner advertises its meals in english with some  german and french words randomly put in between. I do some quick shopping. A woman and her boyfriend are discussing what food to take for their dog in a mixture of italian and swedish, sometimes falling back on another mixture of english and german to avoid misunderstanding. Outside the shop, a few guys balance their skateboards on the handlebar of their bike, stop to buy some mate. At least, that’s the only word I definitively recognized from their conversation, the rest was some kind of combination of at least four languages, which I stopped trying to match with the language patterns in my head.

Taking a shortcut through the park, a few adolescents rap along to some german hiphop music with a turkish accent. On the grass, a group of ravers is having an intense political discussion in english. I recognize at least a greek, a polish and some scandinavian accent in their english, and it’s littered with german words when they can’t find the right word in english. I pass the senior hooligans in their corner of the park. Where the differences between russian, hungarian and original berlin, or about which football team is the best, are smoothed out with cheap beer.  I greet the woman from my favorite evening shop, who stops talking to her friend in thai to say hello to me in german. At a recently opened little lunchroom, the owner corrects his dog sniffing another dog’s behind in arabic, before continuing to serve his customers. They are using yet another language – one I can’t place, indian? – between them. Coming home, the preparation for the african mass in the church behind our backyard has started, and through the open window I hear the preacher switching between english and french, both with a heavy african accent.

 

And at the playground, the kids don’t care about the languages, they just create their own.

 

 

Note: all doodles made by myself when enjoying the parks or getting transported. See Twisted Kritters if you want to see more of them.

Frays and Strays: More Tales from the Seamy Side

Ever since I started volunteering with the foodsharing and the free-shop, I’ve become more and more familiar, and known to, the people who have no choice but to live of the scraps of this society. I started this work to preserve resources, mostly out of an environmental perspective. But I’ve learned a lot about how it is to lose out in the rat-race, never been able to participate in the first place, or restart from absolutely zipzeronothing again.

When I bring bread to the homeless, sometimes I find them hiding from the rain like these stray dogs in Sarajevo

Even though the foodsharing brunch is history, since the place where we gave out the food has been gentrified away, every homeless person knows me, and asks if and when the brunch will be started up again. I guess I’ll never get rid of the nickname “Lady of the cold kitchen”.

So much stuff, but still..

I meet many of the former guests at other initiatives: when I bring bread to the “Cold Aid” for the homeless. The queue starts at 6pm, even though the place only opens up at 9pm for people to sleep. The main language in that queue is russian. 99% of them are healthy, broad-shouldered males. They are the so-called luck-seekers. I’ve met some of those “economical migrants” back on the Balkan. When they shared their stories about being exploited in the EU. And still earning more, or at least something, than back home. They just laugh cynically when I ask them “why don’t you organize, why don’t you unionize?”. For each “luck-seeker” protesting against being exploited, there’s 10 who won’t protest. I meet them when I go to the bank, where I can open an account, and pull money out of the wall. For months, a Rumanian sat there begging. One of the people who did contracted, legal, work here, and never got paid. Since the sub-sub-sub-sub-contractor simply disappeared.

Other people fall through the holes in the “social” net. Because they are mentally unstable. The homeless woman I’m joking with one day, when she found a wok in the free shop  “woman with wok looking for room” next disappears for months. Then she comes back. She only comes back when she’s mentally feeling good. Otherwise, she hides. Under bushes. Trying to grab a few hours sleep in a shopping mall, until she’s kicked out. Too afraid of people.  Too afraid to take care of simple stuff, like getting her allowance from a bank account. Too afraid of filling out forms, and answering questions of strangers. And she’s a nice, friendly, open woman. She shared the story of her trauma with me. What happened to her as a child. And I understand why she is so afraid…

At the free-shop, sometimes clothing is hanging there for months, or too damaged. So, to make room, we hang those pieces on a “Stand of the last hope” for another few weeks, then bring it to other places, or, as a last resort, to a clothing container so it can be recycled one way or another. When I bring a huge bag to one of those containers on a cold evening, a guy calls me from the other side of the fence “is there anything warm in that bag?”. Shivering in his way too thin jeans jacket. Another “luck-seeker” from east from here. Since I know there’s nothing useful in the bag I’m carrying, I tell him about the free-shop. One week later he pops up.  Carefully selects one coat, a warm hat and some gloves. Next week he’s back. Taking a friend of him with him. Showing him the children’s clothing. I hear him explain how we work, and the other guy politely listening. Also, that you can bring the stuff back, so other people can use it, and re-use it, and re-use it again and again. Funny how poverty makes people environmental friendly…

My best friend in Sarajevo, a black streetwise tomcat.

When the weather is a bit ok, we put some stuff outside in front of the free-shop. Sometimes people are bit scared to come in, and we’re very much aware of that. I’m hanging some more clothing on the stand outside, and a young woman approaches me. “If there’s anything you can’t sell, could you maybe spare it for me?”. I look at her. Point to our sign. It’s a FREE shop. Anything is for free. Seeing she’s a little shy, I take her inside. She just stands there, looking at the racks of clothing. Looks at me. “For free? All for free?” I say yes. “The books too?” I say yes. Her jaw drops, literally. And she starts jumping a bit up and down and dances in place. Turns around and gives me a huge hug. She takes very little, just a few pieces of clothing and one book. No place for storage when you live on the streets.

In the face of surplus, need can turn into greed, or into giving

Unfortunately for others, everything for free opens all sluices of hell. That’s why we have the rule of “no more than 5 pieces per person per visit”. Unfortunately, we have found our free stuff being sold on flea markets, in second-hand-shops or online. Recently, a second-hand shop opened up a few houses from our shop. You do wonder who would be stupid enough to open up a second-hand-shop this close to a free shop, but still. The joke in our little collective was immediately “well, at least they don’t have to worry about getting supplied”. And we already did spot one of our guests immediately stopping at that shop after leaving ours.. Of course, the stuff at least gets re-used, but one of our basic ideas is an economy based on giving, not on greed.

Stuff just left to rot in an abandoned farm

But sometimes it’s hard to stick to that rule, if you know people need it, like children’s clothing. Or, if a refugee family finally got their own place, but still need all the basics, cooking utensils, bedding. So we keep that rule loosely. However for some people, it’s just hard to not get greedy when facing so much stuff. We had to throw people out because they tried to take our speakers, or our own pots & pans. “But I need it”. So does everyone visiting our shop. Or our collective old guitar. Even putting it up in at least 5 different languages doesn’t help, if a guy tries to take the guitar (which spells on all sides “not for free, inventory”), and you ask, “can’t you read?” and he simply answers “no”. He can’t read….. This is how unfortunately some stuff we actually needed (a small lamp at the old pc we have for people to use, a little thingie we used for storing small stuff like jewelry) disappears…

However, people learn, and can completely turn around. We had to warn an elderly refugee couple multiple times, and I even went as far as packing out their bags, waving fingers about “no more than 5” until I realized I was actually unpacking her personal handbag… But they settled. And probably realized the free shop would always be there. And always full. So they started bringing stuff back they didn’t need. And now, every time they visit, first they bring us a pack of coffee, and a few packages of juice, and usually some sweet stuff. Then they disappear to the back, unload stuff, and yes, take stuff again, but no more than 5 pieces per person per visit.

Just like a little girl, also a refugee, quickly runs into the shop, drops the hat she’s carrying in the hat box and runs out telling us “I don’t need it anymore, someone else should wear it, it’s a beautiful hat”. Oh yes, another one of those people only coming here to abuse our wonderful western system. Right. They have more respect and understand the principles of “giving” quicker than quite a few of our regular, native, guests who come here every day, for years now, and still try to sneak out behind our backs with more than the 5 items. Heck, I even had a good-looking, well-clad woman asking another guest to distract me so she could run out with a small bag of clothing, probably holding 7 items instead of 5.. I just looked at one of our other regulars and asked “did someone just actually tried to trick me so someone else could “steal” in a free shop?” That kinda behavior I can only meet with contempt.

Needs that can’t be fulfilled…

Not needed anymore…

When it comes to true needs. Socks. We can’t have enough socks. It sounds crazy. Socks are cheap right? But yes, socks. This friday a homeless guy came in. You got socks? I point him to our socks place. It’s always close to empty. He sighs, yep, socks are hard to find. We have tons of everything, but socks go like crazy. Socks and warm long underwear.. He didn’t look at anything else. Just socks he needed…

Living on the streets is even harder for a woman. Since there are only a few shelters with a place for women. And if no woman shows up til a certain time, they give the bed to a man. Homeless people are easy victims. They get beaten up more than most people. And this can be devastating.

Broken & Abandoned

One of our regular guests was doing well. She was looking better and better. Sometimes kept our toilet busy for 30 minutes, came out all made up with a new set of clothing, and the toilet smelling like cheap parfum for hours. Ok, most definitively not my style, but each his own. A few weeks ago she came in, I hardly recognized her. Wearing a hoodie, cowering. Her face one big mess. Hands shaking. Wrong time, wrong place, easy victim. Gone was all her confidence. Gone was also her concentration. Panicking cause she couldn’t find her bag. Which we later found outside, forgotten on the bench in front of our shop. One incident. Back to square one. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it…

Not even the officials can say how many people are living on the streets in this city. Guesses go between 3.000 and 10.000. Why? Because many don’t show up in the statistics. Since they’re illegal. Looking for work, and not having any luck. Or they did work here, and never got paid, and are too ashamed to go back home. Or, because their mental condition is so unstable, they simple don’t show up in anyone’s dossier. Strangely enough, those are the people who tend to give, even when they’re the ones lacking almost everything.

The Art of Transporting Awkward Objects

The dwellers of this city don’t have many material resources. So they have to be inventive in many ways, but surely when it comes to moving bulky objects. And I don’t mean the average pram with or without kid, painting equipment, a cello or just another mountain bike. Anyone living here has observed at least once how someone moved house, including laundry machines, their massive record collection, grandfather’s clocks, tropical plants, couches, dog houses, fitness equipment or a complete aquarium system including fish, by using the extensive public transport.

Just a very few examples of what I’ve witnessed…

Taking a break in my shift at the free shop, I sit on the bench to drink my coffee. A few guys pass by, with a heap of wood on a skateboard, rattling over the cobble stones. They look a bit exhausted, so I point them to the coffee and tea we give out for free. Happily they accept the invitation, and after they find out it’s a free shop, and has a music section, some discussion arises on how to securely stash the wood outside. After I wonder why they are so worried about a bit of wood, they show me pictures on their phone. Turns out this is the third partial transportation of a piano. Yes. In three phases. A complete piano. On a skateboard. When they find out we also have a piano in our shop (to be used, not to be given), their day is made… So is mines. They know how to play.

Stuff awaiting transportation on a street in Berlin
Stuff waiting to be carried away on a street in Berlin. Hopefully it’s not by bike,,,

One of the first sunny days in spring I decide to spend some time in the park. I’m sitting in the grass, which is, according to a sign ignored by many people, not to be sat on. A shadow falls on the stuff I work on. I look up, and two guys carrying a huge two-person-bed-frame pass by. I overhear one saying to the other: “This one’s better than the one we have, isn’t it?” I guess, like so many people here, they regularly replace their furniture by what other people put on the streets…

Half an hour later, another shadow falls upon me. Two other guys. Crossing the park carrying a monumental, two by two meter abstract painting wrapped in bubble plastic. I just, well, acknowledge this and go back to my handywork.

Even if you have your own wheels, transportation can turn out to be hard, long, work. For the Foodsaving brunch, we pick up the buckets full of food from the restaurants with a hand-kart, with huge bags, or bike trailers, but sometimes we have the luck of doing it with a small electric car-sharing car, and it goes much faster. Well. That is. If all the buckets had fitting lids. If they stayed on top of each other. Of course, the one bucket which spills its contents is the one with waffle batter. Of course, that’s the one where the lid didn’t fit. Waffle batter is very fluid. And sticky. And runs fast… We end up removing not just the carpet in the trunk, but the cover of the backseats, the backseats themselves, part of the carriage under the backseats, and half the electric wiring underneath that. But we might not have been able to get rid of all the batter… We joked around of putting the heating on, so the batter would become waffles, and easier to remove. So if you step into an electric car-sharing car of which the backseat smells like freshly baked belgian waffles, that might be the one.

Awkward objects come in all shapes and sizes. Managing their transport can be hard work. On the way back home from a visit to nerd paradise I run into a group of young – obviously not so sober – streetpunks, completely dressed up in patches and studs. Half of the group is in front of me on the stairs, the other half behind me. As I take the last step up I hear one of the women of the group screaming anxiously. I look behind me. No worries. She stumbled on the steps and fell down, but managed to keep her beer-bottle straight. Though quite a bit of the beer stirred out of the bottle and gushes downstairs, most is still inside. Since the catastrophe is manageable, they move on.

Shift in the free shop. A woman runs in, out of breath. “My neighbor! My neighbor! He’s putting plants in garbage bags to throw them away! And they’re still alive!” Though the vegan crowd inside the shop doesn’t mind a dead vegetable or two, if anything has even a remote chance of life, it should be saved. So quickly a human chain is built, people handing plant after plant along a few streets, from the evil neighbor to our place. A few dozen of plants are saved from the shredder, re-potted with bigger pots and the flower soil we coincidentally also had to give away, and consequently adopted. Though if they would survive the ride on the back of a bike under a luggage strap might be another matter.

Not just the human city-dwellers have to be stubborn to get their stuff where they want it. Taking a little stroll I stop on the sidewalk because right in front of me, a little sparrow is very determined to get this ONE twig for its nest. It must be the perfect keystone, or keytwig. Unfortunately, it’s a bit big. Well.. actually at least 3 times as long as the bird. And hard to balance too, one end has far more side-branches than the other, making it heavier on that side, and also hard to get a grip when you have such a small beak. I have fun watching its determination for minutes: every time it tries, only to lose it a few feet, or wingspans, further. Another human passes me, and the bird flies in the tree, eyeing the wanted twig, now forever out of reach. I can’t help myself. I pick up the twig, and put it halfway up in the tree…

 

For a nice illustration what you might experience traveling the Berlin metro system, including quite some awkward transportation, check out this vid (yes, I know it’s an ad for the Berlin transportation company, but it made me laugh, since indeed, it is very recognizable):

Random snapshots of just-being

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

Leftovers
Leftovers

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 – 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.

Impression – The Free shop on Location

Our Free Shop went “on location” for the neighborhood market in between the cherry & apple blossoms in the garden of Villa Kuriosum.

Made quite a few people happy with the stuff we brought, a woman walking away with exactly the same shoes which just died on her, other people who tried to sell stuff ended up swapping stuff with us, and even the gold-enameled kitsch vase found a new home.

Poor parents when their kids discovered all our cuddly toys. One little girl walked off with a (original DDR- someone told us) teddy bear almost as big as her, her daddy following her, shaking his head and mumbling “I just cleaned all her toys out”. Wouldn’t be surprised if we find that bear back in the shop in a couple of weeks..

Impressions – Random Encounters in a Free Shop

Just some random impressions why I love volunteering in a give-away-shop..

  • The pensioned turkish guy, who “no I don’t need any help, do I look like it??” somehow manages to get his cart over the steps, and who tries to look in any direction except in THAT one, when two punk girls try on bras and t-shirts in the middle of the shop.
  • The six year old nerd-to-be, who desperately wants to help us, and after sorting all the children’s games and books on size, tells me about that he already hacked 3 computer passwords.
  • The elderly gentleman, who comes in in a suit-jacket, for three hours does nothing but try on women’s clothing, and walks out in his suit again.
  • A group of five mexican ladies, giggling and dressing each other up in front of the mirror in all the glittery, or ruffled or rather, well… dandy stuff that we normally have a really hard time even giving away…
  • Two young very normal looking guys come in, obviously feeling awkward, politely ask how much the old video- and music-tapes are, and after I explain the concept of a give-away shop, just go crazy for hours going through them. In the end, happily show me they even found a turkish movie, proudly tell me of their collection of 40 videoplayers and 1500 VHS-tapes (“we throw DVDs away), not only hang around for the coffee (and slightly concerned wonder if I had any already), but after going out the first time, run back in to make a money donation, and after another 15 minutes, come back with chocolate bars for us, and, stuttering, the promise, to bring any “modern” media next week.
  • The 60+ woman (“I do look young for my age, don’t I?), who arrives out of breath to bring huge bags of freshly washed clothing, because she likes the idea of the shop so much. But it includes a fur coat and some dead foxes, which, since we are also doing a vegan cafe, sort of makes us uncertain wtf to do with it. Takes 5 minutes for the stuff to disappear, a refugee taking the coat for his wife (“her dream”…), and a kid walks out cuddling the dead foxes…
  • The (russian?) heavily blonded, heavily maked-up and very well-styled lady (including cute hat!), who looks like she just stepped out of some movie from the 30-ies, and who every week brings another guy, who looks like she just picked him up from the street, to dress him up, look critically at the result, and re-dresses him in the next set of clothing
  • A guy picking up a few pair of children’s football shoes, and asking me, if they don’t fit, can I bring them back? Of course I say, it’s a give away shop. And he whispers in my ear, they’re for my grandsons, I can’t afford to buy them christmas presents, but I’m so proud of them.
  • An alternative looking young woman from Tel Aviv with her baby child, who followed her summer love to this city, and next got kicked on the streets, sitting on the floor in between all the clothing and just going crazy “all this stuff.. all this stuff, all for free..”

And so on…
So many people, so many stories in this city…