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The 96. 15 April 1989. Never forgotten.
19/12/2003 – 27/1/2016
Auf wiedersehen, Billy
The journey back to the UK was also a long one. Not unexpectedly long because I had, after all, chosen to use trains to get back from Berlin. I was awake well before dawn, a short walk, two S-bahn trains and then two Deutsche Bahn trains. Storkower Strasse to Ostkreuz to Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Köln Hauptbahnhof to Brussels Midi.
The displays above the seats that tell you if a seat is reserved weren’t functioning on the train to Cologne, which meant a lot of people, me included, were given the semi-annoyed half smile of “er, that’s my seat.” I got out of the backwards-facing window seat and U-shaped myself into the seat on the opposite side of the table, and spend the journey looking at a middle-aged woman sleeping with her head back and mouth open; her nostrils and mouth making a face all of their own. I listened to Trans Europa Express, and yes! Kraftwerk does sound fantastic on a German train.
There was a sadness. Leaving Berlin. I was originally due to stay for two weeks, but I changed my train ticket and stayed for three more days. There are, I think, a few different ways one can see old friends. There’s the person who you lost touch with as soon as you left school/university/a town/a job, and you see them, do a brief highlights reel of your life, say “anyway…. good to see you take care bye!” And that is enough. If you find out they die, you’ll be like, oh shit, but it’s not gonna affect you too much. The opposite of that is your proper friends, people you are in constant touch with, who you can just pick up where you left off, cos you left off a few days ago on email or something. Somewhere in the middle, there’s those who it’s good to hang out, but you would never be each other’s best man but you’d probably be invited to the wedding, for example. But there’s another set, which I found applied quite a lot in Berlin. People who you’re not massively in contact with–the occasional email, say–but when you see them again after a long time, you wonder why the hell you didn’t make sure you were constantly in touch. I found that in Berlin. At least a couple of people who I am sad not to be drinking with at least once a month, to know what they are doing from week to week. I kinda saw all of those in Berlin. And it was sad to leave them behind, to be an ocean away from a quick beer with.
The train was delayed. The 45 minutes between arriving in Cologne and getting the train to Brussels shrank to 20 minutes when we sat in a station for ages, then shrank to under five minutes when we went slowly down a section of track. I was getting a headache. The sun strobed through the tall leafless trees outside the window, right into my face. The Brussels train was ten minutes late. No need to panic. But after years of cliched German efficiency, I’d now, in one day, been on the only two late trains I’ve ever experienced there.
Germany gave way to Belgium. Belgian houses, the ones near the train tracks anyway, have a creepy boringness like they had seen the new 1970s and 80s suburban British homes and thought “they’re nice. A bit too flashy, though.” In amongst those will be the occasional modern house with round windows and a jaunty angled roof, but mostly the boring stuff, the sort of boringness that you just know is entirely populated by people into anal fisting or having sex dressed up like a baby.
This was on the Thursday, the day after Metro stations and schools had reopened after the security alerts. I had five hours in Brussels, plenty of time to do a wee bit of sightseeing. I particularly wanted to revisit the Atomium and the miniature village of European landmarks nearby. I had wondered if the train station would have lockers or a place to leave luggage. Yes, they do, but somewhat understandably at that time–where soldiers with massive guns walked around the station–they were out of use. Five hours with a big backpack. I took the subway to Brussels Centraal, and had, what in my mind, was a defiant walk around the Grote Markt (fuck you, ISIS, you ain’t stopping me from looking at nice things!), but soon realized that Brussels was different. It was quiet. People seemed to be going about their day without making much noise. The cafes and restaurants looked empty. I looked for an ATM. The only one I found wouldn’t accept my British card. I had less than 20 euros on me, so no slap-up mussels and frites for me. A security guard was checking all bags at the entrance to a mall. A guy with a book bag was turned away. There was no way he was gonna let me and my trekking-around-the-Himalayas-sized back pack in there. What to do? Well, what to do was go back to Brussels Midi and wait. Four more hours until my Eurostar to London.
I wandered around the station, looked at every store, had a beer in a cafe across the street, but mostly just sat outside on a bench watching the world go by. And thought about Berlin. It has changed. But it’s the same. I heard a lot more English being spoken than when I lived there. People in bars and cafes replied to me in English even if I asked for something in German, which never used to happen. A wee bit of gentrification, I guess, but it’s still the same beautiful, slightly scruffy, place. A place where, defiantly, you can still smoke in some bars. It was fun to see things that were different. Tempelhof used to be an airport. I flew to Brussels from there once. This time, I walked around the runways. It’s now a huge park. I ate wonderful Turkish food, Indian food, Austrian food, German food. There are now tons of Mexican restaurants, but it would’ve been pointless bothering with that. The only outcome would’ve been: it’s not as good as back home, and it’s well spendy here! Seven euros for three tacos!? Fuck off!
I walked around a lot. No headphones, just walking, getting sweaty inside my sauna of a winter coat (I wear a winter coat so rarely these days that it feels like a waste of money to buy a nice new one, but I’m entirely unsatisfied with the one I have), dropping into bars for an afternoon beer. The silence. Such a beautiful change from Mexico City. Even at busy times, Berlin feels calm compared to DF. But the bars are my favourite difference. The lack of loud music and TV screens everywhere. People in bars in Berlin can talk without raising their voices, and whether you give a shit about the game on the screen or not, it’s impossible in Mexico not to watch that green sporty rectangle of moving people in different coloured uniforms. In Berlin, so many bars do not have TVs.
I saw Billy too. If you have been reading this blog since the early days, you may remember my ex and I had a cocker spaniel called Billy. When I left Berlin, he went to live in the countryside just outside of Berlin with my ex’s parents. Sadly, Hanni’s mum died a couple of years ago, but I went to see her father and Billy. It’s five years since I’ve seen him, and I was very nervous when we got close to the house. What if he doesn’t recognise me at all? I have no idea how long dogs can remember someone. Knock knock. He went straight to Hanni, said hello, saggy tail, licky lick. Then I leant down and said “Hallo Billy.” He came over, sniffed me out, was friendly. He looks old. He is old. 12. He recently had an operation, and has lost most of the hearing in one ear, so does everything with his head leant to one side. In the kitchen, he came and sat near my feet. I rubbed behind his ear. He looked at me, and maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seemed at that moment he was like, “oh yes, it’s you!” He lay on the floor and I rubbed his belly. It was lovely to see him again. I had a little weep in the car on the way back to Berlin. He’s at an age where you don’t know if that will or won’t be the last time I will see him.
Towards the end of my visit, I spent more and more time just wandering around. Berlin is a good place if you want to think. Big wide pavements that allow you to forget about having to swerve around pedestrian traffic. Walking down Karl-Marx-Allee is the best for that. A massive boulevard that goes east from Alexanderplatz. In my mind that road leads all the way to Moscow. All of my time in Berlin, I left my headphones in my luggage. I didn’t want any outside interference. I thought about a story I’m slowly working on. It, if it comes off, is probably gonna be the largest, longest personal project I’ve worked on outside of the books I’ve done. And being in Berlin jarred lose memories, not just of Berlin life, but my old British life, and Mexico, Toronto, other places. All stuff that can be useful in Project X. Mostly, though, my brain was total confusion. I left Berlin in late 2007 to go travelling. Later than I anticipated, I returned in summer 2009, but it wasn’t a good time in my life in my head, and I kinda blamed Berlin for that. The Berlin winter at least. And I started to feel that the very idea of “returning” was a bad idea. The reunion tour didn’t work. I was like Andy Taylor in the reformed Duran Duran: it was alright for a bit but very quickly the old problems resurfaced. (Niche comparison there, right pop fans?) I’d left Berlin and it has taken until five years later to really realize what I left behind. What I left behind was, I’m very lucky to say, a decent amount of close friends. Close friendships that I have not really made a massive effort to keep close. And being back reminded me how lucky I am to have friends here that care about me. That realisation cannot not make you weep.
The sky got darker in Brussels. Only an hour left until I could check in at the Eurostar terminal thingy. I watched drunk Belgians laughing and shouting outside. People smoked cigarettes. Another circuit of the station, shop windows I’d looked at several times already. The backpack heavy on my back. The depressingly inevitable eyes of suspicion that followed any Muslim people in the station were clear to see.
Check in time, and the employee directing people inside the terminal said to the few of us who were there for the next train that there was a train leaving in a few minutes that has some empty seats if you wanna try get it. Yes please! I got in that queue but it was too late, the train left before I got to the front. I had five hours to kill at the station and hadn’t even thought to ask if I could get on any of the three earlier trains that were there.
I did some drawing and reading on the train. The woman sat next to me had a ring tone of a kitten meowing. It made me laugh out loud, which made her laugh and she explained to the person on the other end of the phone why she was laughing.
Back in London, and I was immediately flat. I didn’t want to be back in London. I was happy to be staying with friends, hanging out with them for the weekend, but I would rather have still been in Berlin. I had plans for the next week–that is to say, last week–but after that–that is to say, this week–the plans changed for perfectly acceptable reasons beyond my control. I thought about what I could do instead. The answer was obvious, which is why I’m back in Berlin. Another week here. Another short reunion tour. I’d let the love I had for this city die, but it’s very much alive again and I cannot imagine that ever not being the case.
It was a long journey. Up at 5.45am. Shower, clothes, out of the door from my mate’s house in Barnet, on the Tube to St Pancras, and onto the Eurostar. English landscape English landscape English landscape darkness for a bit then French landscape French landscape French landscape, which looks pretty much the same as the English landscape on the other side of the Channel. It was only the slightly different road markings that would tip you off, really. Unless you were, of course, aware of the journey’s route, which I would guess all non-baby humans would’ve been. Continental Europe, then. Hello Brussels. Three hours to kill: a wee walk around, a couple of beers, some frites, then back on trains: first to Köln, then to Berlin. I’d wondered how it would feel to be back. I lived in Berlin for around eight years. And this is the first time I’ve been back for over five years. The train pulled into the Hauptbahnhof, all of the passengers got off and the more adventurous of us took the stairs, but most of us used the escalator. Berlin. Back in Berlin. There’s Kamps, the bakery shop, there’s Kaisers, the supermarket. I’m really here.
I got in a taxi. The driver didn’t know the street I asked him to take me to. I told him it was near Mauerpark and Max-Schmeling-Halle. He still didn’t know. I had found the least knowledgeable taxi driver in Germany, it would seem. I told him I could give him directions. It was difficult speaking German again. My brain has two switches: English and Other. Right now, the other that floats near the top is Spanish. My instant reaction is por favor and gracias, not bitte and danke schön. I would find Spanish words for directions, correct myself, thinking, digging deep for the German words. It didn’t help his confidence in my ability to get us where we were going. We eventually got close to Mauerpark, the meter clicked over 15 euros so I told him I would get out here.
It was dark. It wasn’t foggy, but there was the fine fine orange mist of drizzle and sodium lights. This park is where I walked my old dog Billy every day. Every single day, morning and afternoon. The orange drizzly-ness that punctuated the almost silent dark darkness really did make it feel like the sort of familiar place one would see in a dream. Some lads talking and laughing in Turkish punctured the dreamy.
The next morning, I walked around my old neighbourhood, the video store is now a cafe, but the tobacconists is still the same with its revolving Zippo display in the window. Some new cafes, and some faces I recognise walking around the streets. My old apartment, the building is still there, of course, but the front door is a different colour. Leaves all around on the pavement. Starting to rot and go squishy under foot. The smell. And the smell of coffee at Impala, my former local coffee shop. I got a cappuccino for old times sake. It tasted the same.
I pressed the English button on the ticket machine at the U-bahn station, can’t be arsed to try and recall everything in German. A guy asked me for some money. I bought a day ticket, put it in the wee machine that stamps the date on the ticket and stood there. It’s still a bit dreamy. Back in Berlin. The train came, the same smell of train wafts out when the doors open. I get on the train, stand near the doors and the recorded announcer voice says “einsteigen, bitte” and that’s when it really really hits me hard: this is Berlin. And simultaneously a feeling I’d not expected: this is home.
I was smiling to myself when I got off at Alexanderplatz. The station smells the same. Smell smell smell, the best sense. An accordion player played something classical. Beethoven, I think. I walked past him and up the steps and right there, a grillwalker, the dudes who have a sausage grill strapped on. The smell of the sausages, the sound of a Berlin accent asking a customer, “ketchup oder senf?”
I went to the bank, got some euros, and had a look at the Weltzeituhr, a landmark I’ve always loved, continued walking towards the Fernsehturm, and heard a busker playing Under the Bridge, the Red Hot Chili Peppers song. A drunk man was dancing in front of him, arms out stretched. Another drunk guy, with a nearly-empty bottle of vodka in one hand was shouting at the coppers in a parked police car. He flipped them off as they drove away, then kicked a cardboard fruit box.
I walked around Mitte. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just walked, ooh, this street, and, aaah, left here. I was getting sweaty in my coat. Bars, cafes, newsagents, kebab shops, stationery stores. The German-ness, the Berlin-ness, just a bonfire night of senses going on. My brain couldn’t keep calm. I bought a beer at a corner shop. I’d forgotten that they do this, but he asked if I wanted him to open it so I could drink on the street. Yes please. This isn’t Mexico, Craig, you can drink a half liter of Berliner Pilsner whilst you walk back to the apartment.
It’s wonderful to be back.
Live every day like it’s your last.
In a hospice surrounded by leeches thinking about their inheritance.
The 96. 15 April 1989. Never forgotten.
I am clearly rubbish at predicting stuff.
My original predictions, with correct placings in bold.
Group A: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan, Greece
Group D: Uruguay, England, Italy, Costa Rica
Group E: France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria
Let’s have a re-look, then, and predict the Round of 16 and beyond.
Because of my crappy predictions in the groups, my original Round of 16 predictions are virtually pointless.
I originally went for a Brazil v Argentina final with Argentina winning. Still think that’s possible, but having watched each of the teams a few times, I might change my mind.
Let’s see, shall we? (Enthralling, right?)
Round of 16:
Brazil v Chile
I would love to see Chile win this one. But I just think that, however it happens, the home nation will find a way to stay in the competition.
Colombia v Uruguay
Colombia had a relatively easy group, of course, but they look pretty good, huh? And Uruguay, apart from Suárez against England, haven’t been as impressed as I originally imagined.
Netherlands v Mexico
Heart over head here.
Costa Rica v Greece
Please let’s get rid of the boring teams at this stage.
France v Nigeria
It would be wonderful, I think, if there was an upset here. And then we, as the dominant species on this planet can all come together and get behind the Nigerian people and completely destroy those fucks kidnapping schoolgirls and bombing people.
Germany v Algeria
They’ll just win, right?
Argentina v Switzerland
The only Round of 16 game I actually predicted happening. *High fives self* Argentina all the way here.
Belgium v USA
I don’t like the US team at all, but they’re like mosquitos and never bloody stop. Can see them upsetting Everyone’s Dark Horses here.
Brazil v Colombia
Mexico v Costa Rica
France v Germany
Argentina v USA
Colombia v France
Mexico v Argentina
France v Argentina