January 23rd, 2010


In the kingdom of the vandals

In 455AD the Vandals -- the tribal name people from the area of today's eastern Germany and Poland were called back then -- sacked Rome, which is where we get the modern sense of the word "vandalism", meaning "senseless destruction, particularly in diminution of aesthetic appeal or destruction of objects that were completed with great effort." But wait, we're jumping ahead.

It's cold in Berlin. Very, very cold. Today's maximum temperature here is forecast to be minus 11c, and its minimum temperature minus 15c. This is colder than the seasonal average, and a lot colder than Osaka, my last city of residence, which today is ranging between plus 1 and plus 9 centigrade. I'm suffering from culture shock.

Dirty ice and crusty snow weighs heavy on Berlin; the pavement might have a little plowed catwalk you can mince cautiously along if you're lucky, but mostly you just have to slither and plod across it. The bushes outside my living room window were unlucky enough to develop a canopy of snow which kept getting heavier until the plants caved in completely. They now lie crushed under a massive snowdrift. Step outside and you're apparently wearing no trousers, and someone's apparently spraying hydrochloric acid in your face.

In these conditions you try to avoid going out into the Muscovite murk, the Martian perma-grey. You avoid the pain and hassle of the city. When you do make a trip outside, there's a palpable sense of exhaustion; Berliners have been facing these conditions for almost two months now, and they might continue for two months more. The novelty of snow soon fades, leaving a certain kind of Siberian despair in its wake.

That's the attitude of the downtrodden-looking middle-class majority, dowdy in jeans and boots and fleece jackets. But -- compared with Japan -- Berlin is also full of "underground people" who seem, in winter, to be more mad and desperate and poor than usual. The squat types with their big dogs look more embattled, the illegal U-Bahn ticket-sellers won't take no for an answer, and the alkies are drunker and more intrusive.

Coming back from my Brel interview at the BBC bureau at the Schiffbauerdamm yesterday -- on a weekday at lunchtime -- I shared a carriage with a shouty bunch of youths who'd obviously been drinking too much, because one of them vomited continuously on the floor while the others whooped with laughter, egging him on. Soon the whole carriage reeked sickeningly of the acid insides of his stomach. I got off as soon as I could only to board another train with a set of drunken youths on it. One of them sat next to me and suddenly began tugging my hat off, patting my trousers, and asking me which of the embarrassed women opposite I'd prefer to 69. "You've been drinking, haven't you?" I asked, in English. "It's not impossible," replied the geeky thug, in German.

My trips to and from the Berlin airport at either end of my Japan trip were characterised by similar encounters. On the way to Tegel in early December I was menaced by a madman who shouted (rather presciently) "Japan! Japan! Okay? Okay?" at me, but in a super-threatening way, as if I was personally insulting him. (I was dressed in Japanese style, with tenugui and cloak.) On the way back, on Monday evening, it was people shouting "Pirat!" My nerves were frazzled by 12 hours on jets, and having to lug heavy suitcases across the snow (the bus-driver decided, just two stops from the airport, for reasons of his own, to dump us at the kerbside), and I felt a sudden urge to pile into the idiots shouting at me. Six weeks in Japan had raised my standards for public behaviour to levels that Berlin doesn't come anywhere near.

It isn't just random, drunk rogue males on trains who menace you here. There are also petty officials to deal with. At the building the BBC shares with Reuters and other media companies I entered by the wrong door and stood in a corridor ringing a non-functioning bell marked "BBC". A German security guard approached, seeming highly skeptical that someone like me could possibly be a BBC interviewee. Even when I'd given him the name of my contact and explained that I was here to be interviewed, his manner didn't change; I was still some kind of intruder.

When the time came to exit the building the lady at the front desk called out a challenge so peremptory, rude and familiar that I assumed it couldn't possibly be for me, and walked straight past. Alarmed that she hadn't signed me in, she was in fact demanding which company I'd been seeing. It was her tone, though, that was so brash, entitled, authoritarian. I wish I could say she's a one-off, but there are times when everybody in Berlin seems like that. You go into a shop, just back from Japan, and expect the local version of a cheerful irrashaimase! Instead you get a sort of scowl that seems to say "What the fuck do you want, you weird pirate-looking guy?" Even when you say "Guten Tag!" you may well get no response.

Of course, the commercial classes mistrust the customers because the customers are often the very thugs and hooligans, alcoholics and shoplifters I've described tangling with on the trains; a class of people who, in the name of some ill-defined "anarchism" or "anti-globalism", smash shop and bank windows at any opportunity, and start drinking at breakfast.

It would be lovely to paint it as principled protest, but let's face facts: some Berliners have a self-righteousness about their incapacity, their unemployment, their non-participation in what they call the Scheisse-System. It's an attitude of arrogance-in-failure you just don't encounter in Asia. Osaka has a lot of poverty, but you sense that everybody tries their best, and that there's a warm glow of positive affect towards society, and towards collective property. The ugly tagging and name-scratching (and what could be a better symbol of the assertion of an ugly, arrogant individualism over collective property?) that blights every available surface (except, inexplicably, private cars) here is largely absent from Japan, where clear train windows and pristine plush fabric seat covers are still possible. In Berlin the council covers windows and seats with ugly patterns designed to deter taggers and name-scratchers.

It's white Germans who are the worst -- totally disinhibited, arrogantly lazy, proud of not fitting in, beer bottle in hand, ready to assail and insult strangers. The immigrant quarters are oases of responsibility and industry; in predominantly-muslim Neukolln alcohol is shunned, which is already a huge step towards a more civilised urban environment.

"Goths and Vandals, a rude Northern race," wrote the poet Dryden of the sack of Rome, "did all the matchless Monuments deface." I'd love to say it was a groundless, baseless stereotype, but here they still are today, these rude northern people. They ride the trains, they grab your hat, they deface the walls and windows of all available public (but not private) property. It's odd that they get so antsy in the midst of their long, harsh winter, because winter is the time when we realise how dependent we are on society, on co-operation, and on harmony for our basic survival. Even the proudest and bitterest of us must raise our hands to the Scheisse-System, thankful for its heat.