I was inspired to write this after spotting a gorgeous piece of artwork by Mari Andrew. Mari captures everyday life and emotions in her drawings, from being homesick to feeling broken hearted, alienated or alone to joyful moments; like buying a new scarf and how seeing a flock of birds in the sky can make you feel hopeful.
In one illustration Mari drew some magical things she’s seen in New York City – like a couple dancing down the street, a secret garden and three people rushing to help a man on crutches who had tripped on the street. It made me think about where I live and how everyday there are situations I observe and think about long after they’ve happened.
The city is jam packed full of history, awful pasts and fascinating memories. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I’m walking/cycling in a place where so much has taken place. I often find myself repeating street names gently under my breath while waiting to cross the road.
“Unter Den Linden, Under the Linden Trees,” I mutter. “Is this really where all the books were burned?” I ask myself, looking at the area near Humboldt University, Bebelplatz, where in May 1933 members of the Nazi German Student Union and their professors burnt the works of hundreds of authors, journalists and academics.
But among the streets where history seems alive there are tiny moments which have just as much impact on me. Here are a few of them:
A woman smoking cigarettes, drinking wine and reading a book in a bar
I once went on a truly horrific date. We connected on the dating app Tinder and arranged to meet on a Friday night. He was quite charming and, to be honest, I just wanted to hang out with someone, anyone, because I was new to the city.
We met at Schlesisches Tor U Bahnhof (a station I will never master the pronunciation of) and visited a bar nearby. The evening started not too badly – we had some interesting conversations. I knew this wasn’t the love of my life when he boasted about his posh upbringing, his three university degrees and his obsession with a Russian woman. Yes, I was 100% sure it wasn’t heading anywhere.
As he got more and more annoying I began to feel uneasy. But I did want to go to a club and didn’t have any plans for the night so I stuck it out. At one point he went to the toilet. I sat, checked my phone, the usual.
Then I looked up and saw a woman at the other end of the sofa that we were sitting on. She had a glass of red wine and was reading a book. I was too tipsy to notice the name of the book. I’m not sure if she had lipstick on. I like to think she did but I can’t be sure. She smiled at me so genuinely and in such a friendly way that I smiled back in exactly the same way. It was as if she knew. She understood the slight madness of meeting up with someone you don’t know for a ‘date’, especially someone you have little in common with. Her being there provided some comfort and the sheer aceness of her – to be in a bar on a Friday eve with a book, a glass of wine and smoking a cigarette – is surely something to be admired.
I now understand completely when people say: a smile is infectious.
A busker playing the saxophone on a rainy day
It was a grey, heavy Berlin day, the kind that feels like the sun will never come out again. I should be used to them because I’m from Scotland but here these days feel quite hopeless. It’s like one day you might disappear into the mist and will never be seen again.
I was cycling through puddles, getting splashed by cars. Even though I had my hood up, water was flying into my face. Very cold rain. The rain was battering into my thighs as I pedalled round and round. Everyone out and about was soaking from head to toe.
I had a meeting in Mitte near Hakescher Markt and, to get away from the traffic, I sneaked in behind Museum Island, a collection of huge, grand buildings. On the ride up to Friedrichsbrücke over the Spree I heard a saxophone playing somewhere. The rain eased a bit and I looked out over Berlin – across a series of bridges, train tracks, cranes, domes. The soundtrack sounded like it was the 1920s but all the building work suggested modernity. It was one of those moments that doesn’t seem to belong to any time or place.
I wish I’d found that saxophone player and dropped a couple of Euros in his or her hat.
A thunder and lightning storm
#1 As my family will tell you, I’m a notorious scaredy cat. I used to be so terrifed of open fire that I wouldn’t be in the same room as one. I’d cry at birthday cake candles. When I was nine on holiday in France with my family there was a thunder and lightning storm. As my sister, four years older than me, got excited about the noise and the drama, I hid in my dad’s fleece and said: “This is the worst day of my life.”
So when I was cycling in Tempelhofer Feld one evening it’s no surprise I felt the need to flee home when I saw the first signs of a storm. But I do have slightly more courage today, as a grown woman, and so stayed to watch the first flutters of the storm. The sky was menacing, brewing up thunder in the distance. The airfield is so huge and flat that you can see for miles and miles. I saw lightening zig-zag randomly on the horizon over factories and autobahns. I stayed as the sky lit up but as the thunder got louder I trundled off home, pedalling quickly. I looked back every now and again. When I reached my flat the rain was pouring over Kreuzberg. I watched the rest of the storm from the safety of my bedroom window.
#2 It was blazing sunshine and I’d just finished a day of teaching when I received the text. A great person I’d met in Berlin had hired a car for a trip and offered to drive us to lake Wannsee, in west Berlin, to make the most of the heat. It was 27C and muggy. We drove towards the lake, getting frustrated with traffic jams on the way. When we arrived the sky had taken a turn towards the darker side but it was still warm. We changed into our swimming gear and dipped into the lake, which was so shallow I could put my hands on the ground while doing the breast stroke.
About 7 minutes later I noticed the sky lighting up in the distance. “A storm!” I squealed. “We’ll be safe because we’re in water,” I said. Apparently that’s not how it works. After the rain drops became more frequent we crawled back to the shore and huddled in a bush, still in our swimwear and just a towel for shelter. I squeezed on my wet Adidas Gazelle trainers and they squelched. Within three minutes my towel was soaked through and I felt as if I’d never be dry again.
BUT the rain stopped. The sun came out eventually. We laughed.
This was indeed a summer of storms.
A man on a bicycle give a man some change from his pocket
In Berlin, like other big cities, sometimes people ask for money from car drivers when the traffic lights change to red. Some people do tricks like juggling or acrobatics before asking for coins; others – often downtrodden and sad – carry a picture or message and knock on car windows. Cyclists usually aren’t asked for money because people recognise it’s stressful to be on a bike alongside lorries and buses, etc, and you have to keep your full attention on the road.
I was on a break from teaching and walking up Charlottenstraße when I noticed a weather-beaten man wearing a flat cap and using a walking stick. He was on the road looking for money from drivers. I’ve observed this many times across the city and it never seems very successful.
A man with curly blonde hair on a bicycle beckoned the man over and gave him some cash. The lights changed and the bicycle man gave a nod to the man with the walking stick and cycled off. The man shuffled back onto the pavement. He looked delighted. A small successful moment for that man that I’m glad I spotted.
Adapted from my newsletter published on October 17 2017