A man and his country
The man pauses to think, and an expression of deepest concentration runs through his cragged features for a long instant. He is almost engraved in the moment, locked in by the tension between his own thoughts. He breathes, gesticulates wildly with one arm and continues his discourse -- the qualities of a literary figure, an obscure philosophy or something of the same ilk -- and wise words emanate from what is a small hole in the midst of an all-encompassing beard. The man is in full flow here, sighing and flinching and digressing in a fidgety form of expression. It is oddly impressive to behold. Suddenly, a disgusted roar bursts from another room, followed by "Alan, what the hell is this" and the spell is broken. He blinks, turns and moves towards the dillemma. He has left some unwashed plates on a shelf for years, and the results are unsavoury.
He is entertaining, eccentric and some even call him a curmudgeon. Regardless, Alan Raphaeline has played a chief role in expat life in Berlin with his bohemian haunt, the Another Country bookstore. And he says he can’t imagine leaving the place he describes as "the ideal living room," with over 25,000 books, masses of living space and its own social scene packed into one building.
The description is apt: Another Country is a cross between a stylised living space and a basement overgrown with nostalgia and trinkets. The shop, both upstairs and downstairs, is unkempt but homely; stacks of books lie where you would usually find tea coasters and the sofas, desks and wooden chairs seem oddly in order with the myriad clutter of china, unwashed cutlery and stuffed birds. This littered mass is framed by the looming shelves heaving with literature. The shop is a hoarder’s dream.
It reflects the owner, who has his own personal clutter. Alan has lived in Berlin full time for the last 10 years, and has been in and out of the city in the decade before that. On coming to the city 20 years ago due to a relationship, he ended up staying in his own right. He has had a miscellany of former activity in England — work assembling relevant newspaper cuttings for companies and practising psychotherapy, amongst other things. Coming from London, which he still sporadically visits, he likes Berlin for its lack of an obsession with housing prices and their fluctuation, he says.
Raphaeline noticed a feeling among English-speaking "Berliners" that there was no opportunity for them to speak their mother tongue, and worked to correct this — hence the emergence of Another Country eight years ago. According to him, the shop’s only real rule is that people speak English, and it works more as a social club than a strict business, with film nights, dinners and occasional exhibitions of sorts being run from the building.
"There’s not really an English language centre in Berlin, and that’s what I wanted to create," he said. "It’s good to have a venue where people can speak English. Before, it seemed that there wasn’t a place where you could do this."
The store is more than a strange exhibit of what cannot be thrown away. As in any shop, the people drift in and out and peruse as they wish but here, there is more — a community. A hard core of friends and fans are a permanent fixture, and the more sporadic visitors will spend as much time discussing a book as they would finding a new one.
This is not a coincidence. The shop’s unusual book system encourages customer feedback, as the majority of the books can be bought, with the reader either keeping it, or bringing it back later and receiving the cost of the book, bar a 1.50 euro borrowing fee. People often return to give their opinion of a book. The shop is also an intended "expat community."
Raphaeline is a hub of this community — he cooks on Friday for the shop’s dinner night, and can often be seen debating books — or anything else for that matter — with anyone craving discussion. He has the same worn, eclectic feel as the establishment, with comfortable, thrown-on clothes, a sprawling brown beard flecked with white and a wheezy English accent tinged with melody. And his personality is inherent here — the shop’s vast science fiction section reflects one of his literary tastes, as do the small shelf of "Evil Books" including the work of Britney and Lyne Spears, A Mother’s Love, and his discomfort at people selling "low-brow" books, such as John Grisham’s, to the shop.
Speaking on the capital, he feels that Berlin is less than ideal for learning the native language. "If you want to learn German, got to somewhere like Leipzig instead," he said. "Berlin is full of people wanting to speak English. I like it; I’m too dull in bad German to have a good conversation, so I speak in English."
English but German
With his distinct unwillingness to speak German, he is perfect for promoting a haven for English-speakers but still seems affected by the German capital. The Londoner can talk passionately on the changes in Berlin since reunification, feels a part of his area, Kreuzberg, and can nevertheless use the language on a day to day basis — both sociably and more aggressively. He remembers feeling "German" after threatening to urinate on a dog whose owner let relieve itself on flowers outside the shop; an extreme form of behaviour not rare in arguments here, but unimaginable in the more reserved confines of England. Though feeling at home is also a problem, he said: "The worst part of my existence here is not being able to escape it.”
Some say that this is the hub of the older expats and that the younger literary scene congregates around places such as St. Georges book shop in fashionable Prenzlauer Berg. Regardless, it is clear it is one oasis of English literary activity in Berlin.
And there are bigger plans for the "perfect living room" — a greater focus on Another Country as a social club and some possible expansion, including musings of an extra building, increased publicity and various social events and happenings — reading clubs, illness support groups and music nights amongst other things. The growth seems almost unlimited. Whether or not this becomes reality, Raphaeline seems firmly entrenched in the Berlin landscape — he has his routine, a community and obviously his Kreuzberg domain, and it appears any new movement of his will be within the capital and not elsewhere. Is he in his own English language country? Certainly. But still a part of the German city.
(Photos of Alan by Alan P. Scott)