I’m unemployed, and have been for almost a month now. That’s not to say I don’t have an income – I’ve been doing bits and bobs of freelance work, and have been pitching articles and short stories for publication. It’s going surprisingly well so far. It feels nice. It feels amazing. I’m living life on my own terms – making money for myself, no boss, no rules. I’m carving out an existence the way I want to, not the way my bank account dictates. Maybe you could do that anywhere, maybe not. Berlin treats skint artists and musicians and literary types very kindly. It’s built by them and for them.
I’m under no illusions that this will be forever – the work may dry up and what little money remains may evaporate as I grasp for it, but that’s no reason to worry. Why spoil the Now by worrying over one of infinite possible Laters?
Living as I am now has revealed a great deal to me. I’m reading a book at the moment called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. It’s an incendiary story of the struggle of labourers and workers against the oppressive economic system of the early twentieth century. The story sees a group of painters and decorators working for shit wages in unstable employment begin to educate themselves on Socialism, and to fight back against a long-established system that keeps them poor, and keeps them grafting every day of their lives.
Some parts of the novel are outdated now – the Dickensian, abject poverty of some characters is now a less common sight in England, however the levels of struggle are familiar. The lead character, Frank Owen, is a politically-minded outsider who begins work at the painting firm, and is frustrated that none of his co-workers are concerned with bettering their station. They seem to think it’s their place in life to graft, all day, every day. They think finger-blistering hard work is noble, and necessary. I’ve seen it and heard it myself – I used to work in a sales call centre, and every single local business I called, every painter or mechanic or removals man or whatever, proudly told me they’d been in the trade for 30 years plus, up at the crack of dawn every morning, working their fingers to the bone.
The book I’m reading theorises that this is an attitude that has been bred into us – that working hard all your life for terrible wages makes you someone to be revered, a work-martyr. Sacrifice your own life for your family. Well, this is what moving here has shown me: you can have better, if you’re willing to risk it. And it’s not that hard. You’re a slave to wages as long as you allow yourself to be. Human beings are the best animal in the world at adapting – that’s while you’ll find us in every bloody place from the Gobi desert to the Arctic tundra to the dark depths of the Amazon. If I hadn’t moved here, I’d still be at a desk in Leeds, and none of this amazing weird stuff would have ever happened.
I wish people weren’t so afraid to demand that life owes them more. Shrugging and accepting your lot in life doesn’t make you an upright and honourable citizen, it makes you a non-entity. The world won’t give you anything. It’s down to you to boot in the door to Life’s office, and make it sit there and listen to you while you spell exactly how things are going to be.
I’m aware things aren’t always as simple as I’ve made out, and I will not deny I’ve been lucky. It’s just how I’m seeing things at the moment. My perspective may change as I grow older. I hope not, but who can say?
But away from this political chatter. I’ve got another story for you!
Last Sunday I went to Mauerpark, which I’d heard was a famous flea market full of hipsters and hippies. I didn’t know what a flea market was when someone first mentioned it to me. I assumed it was some variant on a flea circus, those micro-attractions with miniature big tops and trapezes and weird Victorian men who have spent hundreds of hours training insects to do acrobatics.
I headed to the park, giddy. However, it turns out a flea market isn’t a tiny little set up of matchbox stalls and bug-eyed vendors cleaning their antennae and clacking their mandibles and hawking their wares. Turns out a flea market is just a market. Disappointing.
I arrived on a bright autumn afternoon, delighted at the amazing colours of the trees all around. It was actually the same park where I accidentally smoked hash with Dave back in my first week in the city. At that time, it was just an empty, wet, depressing expanse of grass and scrubland. On a Sunday it comes alive, transformed into a vibrant social hub with thousands of people descending.
It felt like walking into a festival as I approached, falling into line with a river of hundreds of hip Berliners filing into the park with beers and hot dogs from pop up stalls. The sky was pure blue, that vivid, crisp winter blue, like water from mountain springs, and the sun on the trees was spinning incredible shades of gold and amber and bronze. I passed two girls busking on the way in; one playing a snare drum, one a guitar. I was smiling already.
I could see the market across the grass, a makeshift village of huts and tarps. There was music coming from everywhere. I approached a large crowd of people and found a band playing, standing on the very stones where I’d accidentally done a new drug a few weeks prior. Children were dancing in front of them as they played a cover of Space Oddity. Bowie is the patron saint of Berlin. He lived here with Iggy Pop for a couple of year in the 70’s, on the same road I live on – which makes me love it even more.
One side of the park is a huge grassy hill, and this was covered in relaxing couples and groups of friends sharing drinks. There were little carts being wheeled around selling gluhwein. I got a cup and cradled it in my hands for warmth. It was delicious, and I sipped it as I headed into the market. I actually had a goal in mind – it was Halloween the next day, and I wanted to find a bucket hat and floral shirt so I could go as Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The market was dense with bodies, and I succumbed to the slow march of the crowd, dragging my feet along at one mile an hour. There was every kind of stall imaginable. Well, actually that’s an exaggeration for literary effect. I can imagine a rhinoceros stall, and a sex doll stall, and there were neither of these present. Suffice to say there were quite a lot of stalls. I passed signs for currywurst, Japanese sushi, Lebanese falafel, Venezuelan pulled pork, Portuguese paella, Brazilian tapiocaria, pies from Uruguay and South Korean delicacies.
I left the food section and ambled past the merchandise. I saw fur coats, endless denim jackets, retro 90’s sportswear, knock-keyed typewriters, dog eared books, chipped china, peeling oil paintings, army jackets, hammer and sickle hats, hacksaws, jigsaws, and everything in between. Everything but a bucket hat. They even had Sherlock Holmes hats. They had top hats. No bucket hats. What the hell, Berlin?
The market is so vast that I circled it four times and didn’t pass time same stall twice. I got lost a few times in the throng of people. Eventually I left the masses and wandered out onto the grass again, basking in the autumn sunshine. A loud cheer caught my ear. I looked up and saw a vast patchwork of people sitting on the hill opposite, hollering with delight at some unseen event. Giddy, I trotted over. I passed an open basketball court, in which topless, sweaty guys were busy shooting hoops, or whatever cool people call it. But that wasn’t the main attraction.
The legions of people sat around a half-amphitheatre , with tiered seats all the way up the hill. At the bottom was a raised stone stage with a couple of speakers and an Irish guy on the mic, chatting to the eager crowd. I assumed it was some naff magic show or street performer. The Irish guy plucked a young man out of the crowd, and introduced him to the masses. The young guy took the microphone, the Irish guy pressed a button on his laptop, and a familiar guitar riff started. The crowd went mental. It was Sweet Home Alabama. I suddenly remembered something I’d read about Mauerpark – on Sunday’s they host karaoke! I’d completely forgotten!
The young guy leapt into the song, happy as Larry, encouraging everyone to join in. He danced and waved his arms in the air, no shyness evident whatsoever. Men were circling the crowd with crates of beer, handing out bottles and taking change. When the song reached the chorus, everyone joined in together, whooping and cheering, hands in the air. It was amazing to witness. It actually made me well up. It was so communal, and so human. Everyone piling down to the park on a bright, cold afternoon, just for the hell of it, just to sit and sing together and laugh and cheer – what more can you hope for in life?
Each time a singer went up they were greeted with warm, rapturous applause from the crowd. It was a fantastic, well humoured atmosphere. I walked up the hill for a better view, and stayed a long time, watching bold singers come and go. I saw an old man in a flat cap absolutely nail Devil In Disguise by Elvis, an old Russian man in a cowboy hat sang some rawhide-type old Western dirge, an Aussie girl smashed Wannabe by Spice Girls all by herself, including the rap verses, and this Swiss girl blew my mind belting out You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC.
I felt all warm inside, and couldn’t stop smiling. A girl came on and started singing Britney Spears, Oops I Did It Again. I left to explore more of the park, and found an amazing woman using a voice transformer to translate her singing into dance music. An enormous cheer from the karaoke area caught my attention, and I ran back over to see what I was missing. I was just in time to witness it. The girl had finished her song, and had invited her girlfriend up on stage with her. There, in front of thousands of beaming people, I watched her get down on one knee and tearfully ask her girlfriend to marry her. And she said yes. The crowd went into the stratosphere, and I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I only came to buy a hat.
The newly engaged lovers left the stage holding hands, after much hugging and kissing. I dried my eyes and went to explore the market more. I couldn’t stay away from the karaoke for long though, because every few minutes a delighted roar from the crowd would send me jogging back over to see what I’d missed. A girl was singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Oh god, please let this be good. Luckily, she absolutely smashed it, effortlessly nailing the ridiculously difficult opera bit that tends to make every would-be karaoke star sound like a shrieking moron. Then came the crescendo and the highest note ever.
I cannot describe the feeling of utter euphoria and elation I felt as every single person in the park stood up in pure joy, glasses in the air, roaring their approval. The world-famous guitar solo kicked in, and the girl was air-guitaring and head-banging all over the stage, twirling her hair around and laughing. She received a standing ovation at the end.
I watched more acts until it got dark, and the Irish guy hosting it finished with a gravelly rendition of Minnie the Moocher, with everyone singing along at the chorus. He kindly requested everyone take a piece of litter with them, and welcomed any donations to help pay for the music licensing. He said this would be the last event this year as it was coming into winter, but promised they’d be back in spring, for the eighth year running.
I left, smiling from ear to ear. I kept trying to leave the park to head home for dinner, but for another hour or so I was continually distracted by new bands. I saw an amazing jazz-funk band playing on old instruments, surrounded by multi-coloured LED lights. Kids were dancing with their parents, and passers-by were stepping up to the mic to have a turn rapping or singing. It was beautiful.
The sun was long gone when I left the park finally, four hours after I arrived. I’d not found a bucket hat, and alas, my Halloween costume was not to be, but it was okay. I had found something much, much better.