Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2006
From: Lee Lady
Subject: Encounter in a Berlin Hotel Bar
My image of the typical (stereotyptical) Berliner is of someone round. In particular, with a very round head and round face and, since I am thinking of a male, a small mustache. I'm not sure that I see many men in Berlin who look like this, but for some reason that's the way I think of a Berliner.
Just such a Berliner sat down at my table in the small bar in the hotel I'm staying at. Hotel bars are not my favorite place to have an after-dinner beer, but the neighborhood surrounding the IBIS Ostbahnhof has little to offer otherwise, so there I was.
"This guy is going to want to talk," I thought, and sure enough, almost right away he said something to me I didn't understand in German.
"Ich spreche wenig Deutsch," I said, in the slight hope that this might discourage him. He didn't look like the sort of person I'd be interested in getting to know.
"If not German, then what language do you speak?"
"English." The thought crossed my mind that I could have said, "Hungarian," but then it would be just my luck that the guy would speak fluent Hungarian and my lie would be caught.
As it was, he was not at all overjoyed to hear that I was an English speaker, but spoke a few words in halting English. And eventually we started having a conversation in his very clumsy English and my not much better German. In answer to one of this questions, I told him that I had come from the USA.
"How long are you in Berlin?"
"Three weeks," I said, cutting the actual figure in half. In situations like this I try to give answers that bear some ressemblance to the truth (which makes things easier if the conversation goes further) but which don't seem so totally strange that they lead to a lot of further questions.
"You are here for some business purpose?"
"No, only im Urlaub."
But in situations like this, in my experience, people will sense an attempt to be evasive and realize that there is something interesting which is not being revealed. And this leads to still further questions.
"Three weeks vacation in Berlin? Why didn't you go to Spain, for instance?"
Spain, Portugal, Greece. Those are the Germans' idea of good vacation places. Where one can spend one's time at the beach. "I came because of a conference I wanted to go to in Belzig. It's put on by a gemeinschaft called Zegg."
This was a test. If he'd known something about Zegg, as many people I've encountered in Berlin do, I would have been willing to tell him more. But all he knew was that Belzig was quite a ways outside Berlin.
"What kind of gemainschaft (community) is this?"
"They are concerned with ecology," I answered. This was the aspect of Zegg I was most willing to talk with him about.
"Is this community run by Greenpeace?"
"No, but it's like that."
Eventually, he told me that he'd lived in Berlin on the other side of the wall, before "die Wende" (i.e. before the wall came down). Now he seemed more interesting to me.
"What was it like for you when the wall came down?"
He told me that he'd studied mathematics in college ("Ich auch," I said) and had worked for the East German government (I think --- he gave me some acronym) as an economist or something of that sort, from what I could understand.
He told me that after the wall came down, he was able to find a job almost immediately. Then, after ten years, he realized that his company was going to fail, and so rather than waiting for that to happen, he found himself another job, as a loan office for a bank. When I told him the name of his position in English, he was a bit confused, since in German, the word Lohn means the wage that one earns in one's job. (All over Berlin I see signs advocating raising the minimum wage to 7.50 euros/hour.)
"I am a millionaire," he said. Then seeing the look on my face, he said, "A credit millionaire."
So if I ever need to borrow a million dollars to start a business in Berlin, I'll know who to see.
"And how did you feel when the wall came down?" I asked him.
"Before, I had been like this," he said and held us his two hands in a gesture indicating that he had been in bondage. "Now, I am free."
And a little while later, he went off to bed. He was only staying in the hotel for one night.
Before that, though, he had asked me an interesting question. First, he had asked how old I am (67) and then how much longer I expect to be alive, to which I answered "about five years."
Then he said, "Suppose you are wrong and you will be alive for another fifteen or twenty years. What will you do with your life then?"
It was not something I had really thought of. It seems that I accomplish so little with my days now, except for basic maintenance (which has been so much more complicated these past few years while I have had no permanent place to live), that it doesn't make much sense to think in a long term. I didn't want to tell him that there are still some articles on my mathematical web site that I'd like to finish, because that would have involved too much additional conversation.
I told him that I would certainly like to travel more, to Scandanavia and definitely to Russia, since Russian is one of my better languages. (Of course growing up in East Germany, he had been required to learn Russian in school.)
If I'd thought of it, I might have said that I'd like to learn a few more languages. I am about half way through the Pimsleur 90-lesson Japanese course now. When I finish it, I think I'll be satisfied with my Japanese, although I'll never speak it even half-way decently and I canŽt read it at all. And after that I suppose IŽll learn Mandarin and possibly also Arabic. All only through the level of the Pimsleur courses, which is extremely basic.
But if I really believed I were going to be alive another fifteen years, I'd have to do some serious thinking.
Anyway, this guy turned out to be quite intelligent and perceptive. I'd completely misjudged him when he first asked to sit at my table.