I met up with a friend of mine from Dublin who lives in Berlin. We met while volunteering for the Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire some years ago. A mutual friend put us in touch before I got here, and we have had some fun since meeting up during this stretch of nice Autumn weather. She is Croatian, from the city of Rijeka, which used to be called Fiume, when it was Italian. Her grandfather was born in this same city, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, her father was born there when it was Italy (after the First World War), she was born there when it was Yugoslavia (after the Second World War) and her nieces were born in this same city, now Croatia. All this is just to say that she has a theory about Germans: if you open a packet of Ritter Sport chocolate, written on the squares of chocolate are the words “quadratisch, praktisch, gut”, meaning “square, practical, good”, which she says sums up the Germans.

I’m sure the Berliners imagine they aren’t square – every capital city’s residents think they are more important, sharper and cooler than those outside its boundaries. They may indeed smoke wherever they please, but when it comes time to pay the beer bill, there’s nobody trying to skive off without paying for what they drank. On the U-bahn, there are notices saying “Your mobile is not a loudspeaker”. A spanish friend of mine complained that they speak so quietly on their mobiles that it’s impossible to eavesdrop on the conversation. The trains are really quiet, people don’t do small talk about anything, not even about train delays – they just gaze stoically ahead and play with their phones. Ditto if you have a child having a tantrum on the train – very unusual anyhow as Berlin children seem to be very well behaved – but you won’t get either people rolling their eyes in annoyance nor old wans interfering by offering the child a sweetie, just a completely neutral reaction. We had a discussion in class about Berliners and buying rounds of drink. They don’t do it. Even if you buy a round of drinks at the beginning of the night, Berliners don’t necessarily feel obliged to return the compliment. The system here is that everyone buys his own, and you don’t buy a drink until you have finished the one you’re drinking – none of that having two and a half pints in front of you that you MUST finish. Likewise, if you meet for coffee, paying separately is considered quite normal, and waiters expect you to settle up individually. This is not because Berliners are ungenerous, but because they are the opposite of passionate, dangerous, thoughtless of risk.  They don’t get so drunk that they fall down, they don’t throw money around to show off, they have no problem with someone choosing not to drink, and they enjoy every drink because they have chosen each one. They are well able to have plenty of drink, but they probably don’t like the round system because they don’t like feeling under a compliment, the rules are very unclear and you could end up spending a great deal more than you had planned. One of the late-night features here is that on the street, or the U-bahn, people move from venue to venue chugging on an open bottle of beer.  There are 24 hour off-licences on every corner, so you can just pop in when you’re on the move. Any other city would be covered in broken bottles and people with facial injuries, but here, the bottles have a small refund on them, so people either bring them back, or leave them somewhere safe (on the street) for homeless people to collect as an income.  I’m astounded by how organised they are about What Works Best, including in the area of drinking and partying (all venues open til 6am, U-bahns run all night at weekend, city streets are safe and full of people). The jury is out as to whether they are square, but practical and good, that’s a given.

The “quadratisch, praktisch, gut” Berliners came to my rescue recently. All the pavements here are very uneven. They are made with small cubic cobblestones laid in sand, so they lift and shift, depending on flood levels or tree roots. One evening, I was tired and cold, and just lost my footing and fell. I landed on my arse, which is at least so nicely padded I didn’t break anything, but I had a gigantic black bruise and almost lost both my glasses and my mobile phone into the river. A number of people helped to get me back on my feet and make sure I was okay. More than anything, I got a fright. When you are a child, you fall down 3 times a day and barely notice. Now, you feel grateful that all your bones are still intact. When I got over it, I realised, with annoyance, that I probably wouldn’t be able to go dancing that night. I was invited out by my roommates, which was a first for me. I took a nap and a really hot shower, and dug out a Codeine tablet I had stashed away, and decided I was well enough to dance. Actually, I think I must have done a fair amount of healing just dancing the night away. This week, I took the bike out in the wonderful “Goldener Oktober” weather, and managed to fall off it three times, the third time being asked by a group of 12-year old boys if I was okay (definitely “quadratisch, praktisch, gut”). I decided that, for me, avoiding traffic is the best bet, so I stick to the fantastic parks and cyclepaths. I’ve never really had gears on a bike before, and I’m not good with them. You would wonder just how much longer you can use the bike. My roommate said he cycled all last winter, even during the snow. If I’m unreliable on the bike now, what would I be like in snow? Thank God for the Semester ticket – it’s compulsory for students, costs 200 euro and it covers all transport and lasts until next March.