Auslaenderin in Berlin: It’s the neighbourhood, stupid!
One expat in Germany realises that it isn’t the country or even the city one lives in that matters, it’s the kiez.
I was recently walking to my Berlin-Kreuzberg apartment when I noticed that the Turkish-run takeout around the corner, Cantare, shut its doors forever.
It rocked my world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This was the place I went for my favourite pizza: In fact, when I called to order, they would finish my sentence – “No onions, no peppers, we know.”
My boyfriend also felt the loss of Cantare deeply: He loved their dishes slathered in crème sauce, their comfort food on-demand.
As I mourned the loss of my neighbourhood staple, I realised something: changing careers or countries is no big deal. But don’t change my neighbourhood.
When I first came to Germany six years ago, I was told, “Don’t expect a ‘Welcome Wagon’ from your neighbours.” I was advised against knocking on my neighbours’ doors and introducing myself or being overly friendly.
Regardless, I have developed a uniquely intimate relationship with my neighbours. It certainly differs from what I had previously experienced. In the US, we are chatty so you tend to learn details about people around you fairly quickly: names, ages, occupations, children and pets’ names, life experiences. In Berlin, it takes a lot longer and involves codenames and smiles. Here are a few introductions:
-- Chicken-Lady is a middle-aged Turkish woman who sells chicken kebabs and beer on my corner and whose hard-drinking customers once described her as an angel. I try to sneak by her stand so she won’t scold me for not visiting more often. I also know she hates Newsstand-Man next door: She calls him lazy and a crook and tells me to go to the kiosk stand down the street, whose owners she likes.
-- Boss-Man owns the Internet café and late-night shop: He has an adorable two-year-old daughter and recently confessed to me that he is tired of it all (his shop). His employee, Smiley-Man, a German-Kurd who grew up in a family of traditional musicians and whose eight-year-old daughter plays guitar, always notices when I am gone for more than a week. And he loves my boyfriend: “How is Andy” is the question every time.
-- Argentina-Man created little Buenos Aires on my street and makes his food with love. It was his lifelong dream to start a restaurant and he makes the best lemonade this side of the Atlantic. When he fell in love, it was all over his face.
-- Butcher-Lady at my neighbourhood grocery store is a typical Berliner with a three-pack-a-day voice and constantly changing rainbow hair. She is scary gruff. But a few years ago, she saw me struggling to carry my purchases and ran to give me a token for a shopping cart. Since then, a relationship of sorts developed and now, every time I see her, she chuckles roughly and gives me the cheddar she knows I came for. I still haven’t mustered the nerve to compliment her hair.
-- My video store, which deserves a mention of honour with Thomas, Mean-Man, Strange-Pants, New-Guy, Boss and C. They know my customer number by heart (they even know my name). And I know who likes whom in that store (and who doesn’t) and when one starts a new relationship. And if I forget to call to say I am extending my rental, I live in fear the next day that they might reprimand me or worse: cut me off. But they always forgive me.
And, of course, I am still haunted by the ghosts of neighbours past, too: the mother/son team in the corner shop who immediately knew my brand of whatever I came in to buy; Rudis, a type of dollar shop that closed and I am still not over it: I loved the two older ladies that manned that store like soldiers.
These are some of the people that make up the small but not unimportant threads of the fabric of my daily life. And it is them that made me realise that it doesn’t really matter what country you live in or even what city. It is all about the characters around you and a series of small gestures and quiet conversations, in essence your neighbourhood.
A few days ago, I went to a relatively new, yet fast becoming one of my haunts: a Turkish place that serves my favourite Adana kebab on the planet. They are pretty reserved normally. But when I sat down outside this time, the older cook poked his head out the door and smiled: Adana kebab, ja?
Photo credit: Alex //Berlin _ as+photography
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