It’s mid afternoon and I sit on a grassy hill in Mauerpark, in the East of Berlin. A thick humidity fills the air as the sun struggles to poke its way through the blanket of grey. Despite the grey, it is still unmistakeably a Spring day. As the temperature pushes the mid 20’s people fill the cities abundance of parks. Some cook BBQs, some laze about and sleep, some play sports or music, but most chill out with friends and have a few drinks. That is exactly what I am doing.
A short stroll through the park reveals many of the characters one may find in this city. First, the musicians. Situated right by the entrance on a busy concrete path is a trio comprised of bass, guitar and a vocalist who also provides percussion by hitting the box he sits upon with his hands. They play a relaxed blend of blues, folk and rock, which despite sounding great fails to captivate anyone’s attention in a huge way. It feels less of a show and more background music for the many people who have come to enjoy the park this afternoon. With their obligatory open guitar case beckoning for tips or purchases of their CD, I wonder just how much they may make on a day like this.
From where I sit on the grassy knoll, off to my right is a crudely made concrete amphitheatre, rising perhaps 10-15m high. In the time we have been sitting here, people have packed the concrete ‘seating’ and begun enjoying the show. I am told that usually on Sundays they have Karaoke with a band however today they are not playing. Instead, we are treated to the usual ‘street performer’ types who instead of playing background music to contribute to the ambience, play a definite ‘show’ with a clear start and a finish. You know the types, those who say “Ladies and Gentleman” a lot and beckon for applause.
The muffled and distorted sounds coming from the amphitheatre belong to a white, dreadlocked Rasta wannabe wearing a green and yellow tracksuit. As he began his performance more people joined the audience and it became too difficult to see exactly what he was doing but what I could see was what we called in school a “Yo-Ho Diablo”. You know, that Yo Yo type thing with two sticks and a bit of string? Yeh, that was his gimmick. It must be said, he was pretty good, sending it high into the sky and catching it in one smooth movement, most likely doing some tricks between his legs or doing a 360 or something but in essence, just playing with a toy. It made me wonder about these street performer types, they must have huge balls, or no shame, or both. I also got the feeling that the people in the crowd were hanging round in hope of something better. They had got themselves a great seat in the amphitheatre and damned if they were letting some two bit Yo Ho Diablo guy cause them to move. And in time, it seemed like he won them over. People cheered, applauded and gave him the appreciation he craved. I stood up and noticed he had removed his tracksuit and dreads to reveal a red mid riff top, red hot pants and matching red kneepads (of course he had kneepads). One can never be too careful when playing with Yo Yos, or too colour co-ordinated for that matter.
As his show came to a close the next show begun and over the next hour or so I heard many cheers, gasps and applause for this performance. I couldn’t see anything through the people so couldn’t tell you what he actually did, but as his performance ended I was filled with curiosity. After a rousing applause, the majority of the people left the amphitheatre, walking via his open box taking donations for the performance. I mean seriously, a lot of people appeared to be giving him some cash. I wondered just how much one could earn from a performance like that? 50euro? 100 euro? More? Not bad for an hours work. It certainly beats the conversion rate of musicians playing the background. Everyone needs to make a buck, preferably doing something you love. Something I am learning from.
Another character you fill find trying to make a buck is the customary bottle collector. For those not familiar, a bit of backgroun: Well known for its recycling system, Berlin operates on a Pfand system whereby the purchase of every bottle or can includes a deposit ranging from 8-25c, which you receive when you return the bottles to be recycled. When drinking at home, most people will return their bottles and pick-up a small credit with which they can buy perhaps another drink, however with such large amounts of beers and other drinks being consumed in public parks, the perfect opportunity presents itself for those willing to collect empty bottles and cans and make some money.
Not glamorous work, or incredibly profitable, but it does provide a ready-made opportunity for those without work to earn themselves a bit of money (and not have to beg). The more people drink, the more opportunity for these people and in the process the parks remain free of empty bottles. A unique and efficient system and undoubtedly one that is certain to introduce you to some characters. Namely the shirtless elderly gentleman from yesterday hobbling around the hill collecting bottles whilst also offering to give water in exchange for empty bottles. Perhaps a noble pursuit providing an incentive, but from a shirtless (and later pantless) man with nipples resembling those of a lactating cow, not such an appealing offer. Something I will not soon forget, no matter how much I try.
Berlin thus far has proved to be the city I always believed it could be. Since coming in December and experiencing 30 odd days of grey and cold, feeling mostly like a tourist, I have since begun to feel somewhat at home in this city. I am getting my bearings, improving my grasp on the language and in general enjoying the lifestyle it offers. As perhaps a complete antithesis to the rest of Germany, Berlin represents a relaxed and liberal attitude to life whilst still maintaining some inherently German characteristics. It is a unique and interesting city, one of which I am only just beginning to discover.
Til next time.