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.

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


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 – Undermining “planned Obsoleteness”


One of the things I like about Berlin are the “artisans”.. not the artists, but the artisans, the crafters. Those people who do miracles with your old stuff, and whose eyes light up if you bring some “inherited” piece of equipment or material. Stuff, of which other, more “official”, shops tell you: not worth fixing it, please buy our newest product.

Hobby_FotoToestelOpa4_bewerkt2A Flash of Time

Such as the analog camera I inherited a long time ago from my grand-dad. When I got it, I brought it to an official photographer shop. They told me: already the money you would have to pay us for opening it up, would be more than the camera is worth. So I let it dust away in my cupboard as a memorandum. Until I told one of my colleagues, a hobby photographer, about it, and when he heard it was a Leica, he immediately send me to an artisan repair shop nearby.

There, they didn’t tell me, forget that old camera, here’s our newest digital product. The shop-owner, who I suspected was close, if not over, his retirement age, opened the case, started whistling when he saw the camera. I could see he could hardly wait till he would be able to bring it to his “laboratory”. Three days later I could pick it up. He took the time to let me hear the sound the shutters made, showed me how innovative the light meter on top of the camera was, the mechanism of the film transporter, and in general, what a wonderful little piece of pure mechanical, no circuit boards involved, machinery this camera was. I showed him a separate objective which came with the camera. He scratched his head and asked: “may I? You got 15 minutes?”, took it back to his laboratory, handed it back and said: here, it’s completely dust-free now. Hobby_FototasOpa3_bewerktNo, free of charge of course. From the corner of my eye I saw his much younger colleague (daughter?) sigh and shake her head. There was more stuff in my grand-dad’s camera case, including some unused films from the 50s or 60s. Totally unusable by now. Those films now are an exhibit object in this shop’s display window.

This Cow Died Almost 100 Years Ago

Another object I inherited is a long, leather motor coat my grandma used to wear in the 1920s and 1930s sitting behind my granddad on his motorbike. The coat is heavy, it weighs close to 15, if not 20, kilos. It’s very thick leather. But it’s warm, and utterly cool looking. Though too big for me. So it was gathering dust, cause when I went to a leather shop to ask how much it would cost to make it my size, it was way over my budget, and indeed, at least 3 times as much as a new leather coat would cost.

Until I moved here. Again, I looked at that coat, such a beauty, such a pity. And too much sentimental value to give it away or even sell it. So I thought, what the heck, and searched for a leather worker here in Berlin. Found one close to where I live, and dragged the coat with me. Unpacked, it resulted in quite a few exclamations from the shop owner, and another artisan was dragged from behind her sewing machine. Such LEATHER. They just don’t make it that way anymore. People like thin, supple, leather nowadays. The shop owner shook her head, tut-tutted and dismissively waved at the new leather coats hanging in her shop.

Kleding_gedragen_OmasJas_Cowboyhoed_Lendendoek_RKZ_bewerktYes, of course they can make it fit my size. The only problem might be the machines can’t take that good, thick, quality of leather. Nowadays, we’re simply not prepared for it anymore. But… She looks down at the coat, and tentatively feels the leather again. Again, she mumbles something like, they just don’t make it this way anymore. She looks up and says: I have to try, I simply have to. So she takes my measures, which takes sometime, since she’s very precise. A week later, I can pick it up. Perfect fit. And a bit lighter too, since I am skinnier than my grandma. I leave after a lecture about greasing leather. But, nothing beats how that coat keeps me warm during the harsher days of the Berlin winters…

Re-Tired and Re-Soled

Sometimes, there’s stuff I didn’t inherit, but just love, because it lasts me a long time. Such as my bike. There’s a dutch bike repair shop in Berlin, where “my” bike hangs on the wall as a museum piece. Where, if I go there, at least 2 of the guys wipe the oil of their hands and, almost drooling, point out the drum brakes to each other. Where I almost always get advice, or some second-hand replacement part, for free, just because they love the fact I’m still keeping this piece of history in good working order. And if they charge anything, it’s not much more than the material costs.

2014_MF_Zo019_Afterparty_Pinked_zwOr like my trustworthy big leather boots. After 10 years of good service, and 3 months of oil & rust after working on something also build-to-last, a 50 year old DDR-high-sea-fishing ship, now serving as an alternative music venue (and still sea-worthy), the soles of those boots cracked, straight down the middle. I went to 5 normal shoe repair shops. They all shook their heads. Way beyond repair.

Until I found on the internet the address of an orthopedic shoe maker. I went to his shop. A stooped, older, and very, very grumpy guy wearing a leather apron lets me wait for quite a few minutes before coming from the back. He looks me over critically and tells me: I don’t DO shoe repairs, I’m a crafter, a specialist, a maker of shoes. I start to look sad. He’s my last hope. Those boots have lasted me 10 years. His quite bushy eye-brows go up. 10 years? he asks. Let me see them. So I take them out. He slides his finger over the stitches. That’s good craftsmanship, he admits reluctantly. Ok. Leave them here, two days.  So I come back in two days. There are my boots. Shined up to the max. He straightens his shoulders, rubs his thumb along the side of the new soles, looks at me, and there’s a hint of a smile on his face. They’ll last you another 10 years now, he tells me proudly. I burst out in thank yous, but he waves me out of the door, bends down to his next project “it was an exception, ok? I don’t do shoe repairs”. When I leave, he looks over his shoulder: just take good care of them, grease them regularly, will you?

Wobbles And Knobs

Today I brought my old amplifier to a repair shop, because the socket for the phono input was doing weird stuff. I talked to the guy on the phone beforehand. Yes, of course he can fix it, he can fix anything. Of course, he’ll give me an estimate what it costs. So I unplug my amplifier, wrap it in bubble plastic, and step on my bike, and 1500 meters further, in between a vegan restaurant and a shop selling exclusive designer bags, is a dusty shop full of cables, spare parts, and reassembled hifi equipment.

I step in, and an elder guy in a blue coat with glasses comes from the repair room behind the counter “ah, you phoned. Let me see her”. He carefully unwraps my amplifier, and, almost caressing it, immediately brings it to the repair room, starts plugging it in, wobbles with the knobs, and agrees with me, yes, the old stuff is so much more reliable and long-lasting then the new stuff. IF you take care of it. And he starts telling me anecdotes about what he all found in amplifiers and tape decks. He quickly gives a preliminary diagnosis of the problem, and tells me, he’ll phone me tomorrow to give an estimate of the costs, and how long it will take. Repairing will be quick, but waiting for spare parts might take a bit. I immediately feel like my amplifier is in good hands, and tell him about the old Thorens record player I recently got and which needs a bit of love (& cleaning).

2015_Overig501_Materiaal_Muziek_ThorensMenno_bewerkt2His eyes light up even more. Though, he’s skeptical. Thorens is a name, a label, not all is as good as the name pretends. But yes, he’s more than willing to check it up, clean it, bring it in good state, give the mechanical parts a bit of grease. Max 60 euros, if nothing is broken. And yes, he’s fast. He starts telling me about DJs from Hamburg or Rostock who travel to his shop. With sparkling eyes he gives some anecdotes about what state he found their record players in. Proudly he says, he can repair almost anything. And fast. And good. And lasting. Good-as-new. IF you take care of it after it has been through his hands, of course.

The Crafty Fifth Column

These artisans, these professionals, are the silent force opposing – and opposed by – “planned obsoleteness”. They are threatened in their existence by a culture of throw-away technology. Where the warranty of a new camera or telephone is no longer than two years max, and even the bigger shops tell you: it prolly won’t last much longer than those two years. “Here, buy our newest product”.

I know. What they charge me to repair my stuff, simply does not cover the actual time they put into it. These are people who work with their hands. Who love when something of good quality comes into those hands. Something they can appreciate. Who truly take pride in their job. When they can bring something into, or close to, its original state. Technology, or craftsmanship which make their eyes light up, and, even with the most grumpy ones, makes the corners of their mouth go slightly up.

They hate doing shitty jobs. And if you bring shitty stuff, no matter how much quality work you put into it, it will still be shitty stuff afterwards. So yes, if you bring them quality stuff, they, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, love you for it. One of the – only – ways you can repay them (cause they usually undercharge you…) is to respect the quality of the product, and the quality of their work, by taking good care of it. And that’s what they’ll tell you again and again: take good care of it.

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…

Blurp – The Door to Summer

Just like the old tomcat in Heinlein’s book
I’m desperately looking for the door to Summer…

*sighs* & remembers the sound of crickets when hiking up a mountain with 37 degrees celsius, the smell of hot steel enjoying breakfast & a good cop of coffee in the sun on deck of my favorite ship, the relief of a breeze standing near burning asphalt when hitchhiking or just the feeling of the air on a warm summer night in the local park…

Impression – A Guitar Night Out

Omg.. after a great Chrysalide gig in Slaughterhouse (with only like 25 people watching, people, what’s wrong with you, already hibernating??) I traveled back in time yesterday, to something in between the Vera club in the 90s combined with a cheesy 70s party in the ORX and the hairmetal-karaoke from the Baroeg: the Paranoid Party in Berlin:

  • The djs were actually playing from VINYL. Including some well-played records with lots of cracks & hisses (that poor ZZ-Top-record…)
  • The tracks were in between 3-4 minutes long, and they were songs. As in, you know when a song started and when it finished. No fancy mixing
  • The good old worn-down leather couches to crash on on the stage, and the “steps” around the dancefloor to sit & hang around (Vera….). HUGE speakers, think (again) Vera in the 90s
  • NO fancy light effects. Heck, no light effects at all. Just two projections of something brownish/black I couldn’t decipher & a huge discoball, and therefore, wonderful pretty shadowy corners and a shady dancefloor. A not overfilled, but well-used dance-floor on an uneven wooden floor.
  • Lots of 70s and 80s hardrock & metal (from the Sweet to Motorhead, and I think I heard Rock Goddess…), ok, that’s mostly too mainstream for me (not my music in the 80s either), but also Slayer, L7, Fugazi, Hellacopters and of course Nirvana
  • The crowd was enthousiastic and having a frik-load of fun. lots of air guitars, jumping, running around, headbanging, lifting each other up, doing ballroomdancing, jumping on each others backs, tossing each other around. I had a weird air guitar-headbanging-sparring-contest with some unknown guy on Motorhead 🙂
  • When the first note of a song started, it was always someone’s favorite. And that someone would jump up, get a huge smile on his/her face and MOVE. Nicest thing I saw was a big guy dancing, jumping around, running up the stairs to the stage, doing an air guitar there, running down again, jumping, and next on stage again for his air guitar. Not to show off or impress, but simply because he was going crazy on that song.
  • Crowd mostly dressed in tight black jeans, bandshirts with sleeves cut-off, lots of long hair, few mohawks & the bald-head-with-beard. Beer seemed to be the most common drug, though not an “alcoholic” atmosphere. Party started early to Berlin standards (high-time around 2), ended not too late (I left around 5)
  • I saw people leaving the party actually going up to the djs to thank them…

For the record: it’s this (monthly) party: from these people:

And this is how they promote themselves (didn’t hear Melvins, Monster Magnet, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and the like unfortunately… maybe next time 🙂 ) “PARANOID – KREUZBERGS HEAVY ROCK PARTY! The waiting has come to an end! Finally Berlin has a regular clubnight where you can party to the coolest Rock&Roll-Sounds. Who finds the common Indie-Parties to poppy and starched, who finds metal bars frumpy and grumpy, who fears teenagers and trite blockbusters at Ballermann-Rockparties, watch your knickers get wet! The city’s finest deejays spin: – STONER à la Queens Of The Stoneage, Monster Magnet, Graveyard or Kyuss – GARAGEROCK à la White Stripes, Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or Jon Spencer – SCANDINAVIAN-ROCK à la Hellacopters, Turbonegro, International Noise Conspiracy or Hives – OLD SCHOOL METAL à la Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Pentagram or Slayer – 70’S ROCK à la Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, MC5 or AC/DC. – PRE-GRUNGE à la Nirvana, Soundgarden, Melvins or Mudhoney – US-ALTERNATIVE à la Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Beck or Lemonheads – UK-INDIEROCK à la Supergrass, Kasabian, Primal Scream or Oasis

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 Borders between the Balkan and Germany

Back home. Situation traveling on the way back from the Balkan to Germany. Crossing three borders – easy if you have the “right” papers and the “right” skin color.

Border Slovenia: a few 100 refugees, a LOT of cops, a LOT of press, and a LOT of volunteers. The volunteers (I saw cars with license plates from Bosnia, Croatia, Austria & England, FULL of blankets, food & drink, kid carriers and so on) were putting up tents.

I saw people with dreads and antifa-shirts working together with religious people. I saw people playing football with the refugees. A kid holding a huge yellow plastic ball.

Behind me in the bus sat a bosnian guy. When we were allowed to get out of the bus and wave our passports, he started talking to me in bosnian, with a sad face, looking to all the refugees that did not get through. When I told him I don’t speak bosnian, he simply looked at me and said “I’m a bosnian refugee”.

The border with Austria was empty. So were the border control stations on the german side. A few kilometer past the border btw.

And the crisis at the station in Munich? If there was any, it was caused by the 1.000s of visitors of the oktoberfest (in september, but anyway) in Lederhosen & dirndls…

But yah, glad I made it home…

(pics are here: )

Impression – 6 Borders down, 3 to go

Zagreb, Croatia: 6 borders down, 3 to go. But they will be the hardest. Back in the EU, but since the membership states now are about to reinforce those oso open borders again.

Weird btw, I have to get used again to street lights, separate-your-waste-bins, five-lane streets, and shops which sell like at a least 10 brands of everything.

Didn’t miss these things the last few weeks. I rather realize a. there’s something like a Milky Way, b. it actually has colors :), c. can’t recognize the star signs since there are too many frikkin extra stars.

And I’ll miss falling asleep with the sound of waterfalls or rivers nearby, or waking up by the call for morning prayers, or the sound of nightly wild life sneaking around my sleeping place. Or bumping into a lynx (!) And the coffee won’t be that good, and I won’t taste yet another variant of fried cheese.

But the things I’ll miss the most are the general gentleness, friendliness & hospitality of random people I have met. I left bosnia with a vitamin overdose of all the fruit I got on the way, from the figs & grapes from the guy who gave me a lift to Mostar, the prunes from the bus station chef in Foca, the apples everywhere but most specially from the family who gave me a ride in Una park, and all the self-baked bread & cake (and baklava, or some local variant of crunchy pancakes filled with apples honey, MJUM) people put on a plate, in a bag or simply into my hand. My pockets are filled with telephone numbers of people I met when they gave me a ride, on the streets, in the buses, or hiking, all inviting me to stay at their place the next time.

Again, the rougher the landscape, the nicer the people (and unfortunately, as I found out by hitchhiking from Sarajevo, or in Sanski Most, the softer the landscape, the harder and more egoistic the people….)