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Coping in Berlin: When Things Go Wrong

A pickpocket By Hieronymus Bosch 1475-1480.

As cities go, Berlin’s a good ’un. There’s very little to argue about in that regard. It’s a city where being penniless is common—perhaps because here, unlike New York or London, it’s not debilitating. Groups such as Free Your Stuff Berlin alert the most jaded of Facebook scrollers to the purely altruistic qualities of so many here. Those fortunate enough to stumble into a windfall or steady work after many mishaps and missed opportunities don’t seem to lose sight of where they’ve come from. I’ve seen a MacBook passed on free of charge with the words “some kind soul gave this to me when I needed it most, so now I wish to do the same.” Another spoke of their misjudged gift for a loved one, now up for grabs. When a commenter suggested they could possibly return it, the gifter agreed it was possible, but demurred, stating that “the air is different here.”  But behind these beautiful gestures hides an ugly fact—there are a lot of people in this city in real need.

When things go wrong and you’re far afield, there are no well-trodden paths to follow. Expatriate friends are at a loss when something out of the ordinary strikes, able to offer tidbits of hearsay and condolences instead of real help. Those of us privileged enough to know Berliners will quickly realise that they, on the other hand, are well-equipped to keep their shit together—but won’t be of much help when yours suddenly hits the fan.

Being pickpocketed is never good, everyone knows that. However, I now know it varies in degrees of terrible. When a young thief distracted my already inebriated senses with an impromptu dance number, I assumed it was some kind of new fad the gangs were doing to pass the time amid the barflies and potential customers strolling through Revalerstraße. The police informed me the next day that this technique was a well-know ploy of those who seek to rid passers-by of the nuisance that is their wallet. They then told me there was little hope in retrieving my belongings, and that it was superbly idiotic to have attached my only set of keys to it with a makeshift keyring attachment. Hence my knowledge of degrees of awful.

After a minor meltdown in the brutal morning heat, I went about setting off home. Thankfully, my roommate had texted me saying she would be back in the house to let me in. With no ticket, no phone credit, and just over five euro to my name, I decided to forego purchasing in a ticket in favour of a lukewarm bottle of water.  When I finally made it to my door, I noticed it had taken a considerable bit more time than expected to return. Desperate for my bed after a long night, I rang the buzzer, already picturing the knowing look on my Turkish flatmate’s face as I recounted my stupidity. I waited, slowly realising my luck was still circling ‘round the drain. She wasn’t home. Don’t panic, I thought, all I have to do is buy phone credit and Aldi, my provider, is just around the corner. I reached into my pocket and pulled out every cent I could muster, a cool four euro and ninety cent. Just ten cent short of the lowest denomination of call credit they sold. After another short meltdown, this time in the sunny afternoon, I began thinking straight. The bottle! I could recycle the water bottle! Twenty five cents will put me back in the black. Making my way quickly toward another local supermarket that I knew from experience took most types of recyclables, I began convincing myself all would be well once more. Alas, it was not to be.

In all my wisdom, I had chosen one of the few non-recyclable bottles available on the market. I decided to pace, with all the glee of funeral procession, toward Aldi, scanning for stray beer bottles as I went. Arriving emptyhanded, I decided all I could do was feign ignorance and hope that the cashier would take pity. As I approached the till, it instantly dawned on me that I had had an encounter with this particular shop assistant just days beforehand, in which, I, an impoverished busker, paid for seven euros worth of groceries in ten and twenty cent coins. For shame, I know, but it’s honestly all I had. She had chastised me for holding up the queue, explaining how she couldn’t take my word it was all there, and, as such, had to go through the arduous task of counting it all out. Hopelessly embarrassed, I had left that day in such a rush that I forgot my change, which ironically enough, had been ten cents.

Today, looking intentionally gobsmacked that I was somehow short, I proceeded to make elaborate gestures of looking for that missing, albeit fictitious, coin in my never-previously-so-deep pockets. She did not take the bait and refused me the credit. I was all set to indulge myself in mental meltdown number three when a kind voice spoke up from the queue. An elderly man behind me said he’d front me the ten cents, and refused my sincere thank-yous, stating it was no big deal and unworthy of the slightest nugget of gratitude. After many missed calls and excessive buzzing of doorbells, my housemate finally rose from her slumber to grin apologetically at my comic dismay before returning to her siesta.

As I fretted over how much money it would cost to replace my front door key—a much-hyped peril of German bureaucracy—I began to understand that although my wallet had been empty when it was stolen, the thief had still managed to cost me quite a bit of money and grief. Banks charge by the card, apparently. After a week or two of penny-pinching, I finally built up enough cash to accompany my friends to one of the many street festivals Berlin hosts during the summer. As my friend was a newcomer to Berlin, I took it upon myself to show him the East Side Gallery. There, alongside the Spree, I met a homeless man who wondered whether I’d spare him some change. Explaining I truly couldn’t, he said he’d settle for company. I lent him my ear, and he regaled me with stories of prison, Jamaica, and everything else. My friend and I were in no rush, and ended up spending quite some time with the middle-aged man as he politely chatted to passers-by. Then, suddenly, several people came over to us. He told me they were drug dealers, and when he did, I could not help but see flashes of those pick-pocketers from weeks before. They dressed the same, looked as if they could easily be cousins, but the atmosphere was different. They weren’t peddling anything, or eyeing up easy targets. They introduced themselves, and said how they knew the man now sitting next to me. Before they left, one gave the man his burrito. He refused at first, but the youngster insisted he have it. After all, everyone needs a little help now and again.

By  Conor Kilkelly

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