Saturday, December 04, 2004


The good mood was too good to last. Two encounters today made me realize I'm still in Berlin.

The first was with my landlord's mother, who lives across the hall. She is a singularly unpleasant woman, and I've always tried to minimize my contact with her. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, she would stop me and want to talk about it. Well, not "talk" about it: harangue me about it. I'd always wind up getting punched with her index finger as she said, over and over again "Denk an die Kinder!" -- "Think of the children!"

When I first moved into this place eight years ago, it was under construction. Mr. and Mrs. B, with weekend help from their son (who is, on paper, my landlord, and who would drive in from suburban Dusseldorf) would work on the place, renovating it, day in and day out. You'd never know what they'd be doing next: at one point they rented some kind of mini-elevator which lifted one person off the ground and propelled them upwards along a track. I forget what this was for, but I had a visitor from the States staying with me who referred to them as "the flying Bs."

Everything went horribly wrong with Ma B. two years ago. Her husband died of liver cancer, and she began to shuttle between here and Dusseldorf, staying here a few weeks until one of the family came to get her. She was insufferably nosy, and one day she appeared at my door, said "May I come in?" and walked right past me into the house. Now, in America, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but in fact here it's illegal. I caught her in the kitchen, her hands raised to the heavens, crying "Fuuuurchtbaaaarr! FUUUUURCHTbarrrr!" ("Terrible!"), her voice raising a note with each repetition. "You have rats! You have insects! You are dirty! You must understand: everyone should spend two hours a day cleaning! I'm going to tell my son and he's going to throw you out."

Well, this was something I knew a little bit about, having moved here from a house that did have rats and mice. If there's vermin, it's the city's responsibility to inform the landlord when tenants complain, and it's the landlord's duty to get rid of it. I didn't then, don't now, and have never had anything like that here. In fact, the rats at my old place were the only ones except for a few out in the wild or in subway tunnels that I've ever seen here. As for insects, sure: I had moths and the occasional spider. This is because in the summer, the windows are open and don't have screens. Moths do come in. Mostly, they die, but some don't, or lay eggs before they do. It's a pretty minor problem next to the Texas roaches, I'll tell you. But, technically, I'll plead guilty to insects and arachnids.

I'll also admit the house wasn't in very good shape that day. I was working pretty heavily in those days, and was often gone for days at a time. I considered a cleaning lady -- lord knows there are enough of them available around here, thanks to the unemployment situation -- but felt funny about hiring one. So no, the house wasn't all that clean on that day.

Naturally, the landlord was alarmed, and I wound up writing him a letter saying his mother had pushed her way into the apartment without my permission, and that she had grossly exaggerated what she'd seen. He mentioned it to her, and she stopped talking to me. Literally. Sometimes we'll open our front doors at the same time, and she'll screw up her fact into a rictus and turn her back until I leave.

Well, today I made the mistake of being nice to her. She was coming from the other building, I was coming back from Friedrichstr., and I unlocked the front door and held it for her. She got two steps up the stairs and whirled around. "You lied to my son! You lied to him! I asked if I could come into your apartment and you said yes, but when you wrote my son a letter you said you didn't! You lied to him." She repeated this five times, blocking the stairs, and was taking a breath for a sixth time when another tenant came down the stairs and found he was blocked, too. She turned to talk to him and I squeezed by them. Two years she's been holding this in.

I didn't even ask her about the flowerpot with the herbs growing in it she stole from the back yard last week, just as I was going to take it in. Fuck it; I'm not going to play.

But being shrieked at for twenty mintues when you're trying to get inside and warm up has its affect, so I didn't start thinking about tomorrow's dinner until it was after 4, which is always dangerous on a Saturday, because a lot of businesses still observe the old 4pm closing time. The German Work Ethic, you know. Anyway, I finally decided on a big Italian soup, because a friend is coming over, and I love to cook for others. Plus, this should leave me with leftovers, always a consideration. So I hauled out my favorite big Italian soup recipe (in Patricia Wells' Trattoria Cooking) and went through it. Fortunately, nearly everything I didn't already have could be bought at the inevitably-depleted supermarket on a Saturday afternoon, but there was one "exotic" ingredient: pancetta, the unsmoked bacon Italians love to flavor sauces and stocks. Still: no problem, because there's an Italian deli run by real Italians over on Ackerstr., down the block from the supermarket. I'd have to go there first because they close early on Saturdays, but at least I wouldn't have to go to Alexanderplatz, which is the nearest place I know I can get it.

A few weeks ago, I'd been foiled, but this time the lights were on, there were people in there, and the sign in front was illuminated. I walked in, and all three employees wheeled around to stare at me. "Closed," the one closest to me said. "That's a problem, isn't it?" There was a palpable sneer in her voice. Crap, now I'd have to walk to Alex.

So I did my shopping and while I was gathering up the last pannier of green beans (half of which seem to be diseased and will have to be tossed, but when you're shopping only four hours before closing time on Saturday you can't be choosy) and a head of cabbage and some carrots, it occurred to me that there was a wine shop where I usually celebrate a big check by buying a nice bottle for six or seven Euros, and it wasn't too far away. So after I paid and packed my groceries, I headed down there. The guy was as friendly as ever, but all he had was a few kinds of salami in his deli case, and a couple of mournful hunks of cheese. "So do you know if there's somewhere in the neighborhood here I could get some?" I asked. I mean, I knew there was, but I was wracking my brains because I'd foolishly been counting on the Italian place being open. He looked at me with wide eyes and said "Why, no."

Well, dammit, I knew he was wrong, but it hit me, as I walked out the door and turned the corner onto Auguststr., that this is very typical of the way people do business here. As I posted earlier, there's a real problem with people not thinking before they go into business. The current plague of cut-rate hairdressers and bakeries was preceded by the Italian deli plague, and this guy was one of the survivors. But I'm thinking he was just lucky. He should not only know what the competition is, but where it is and what they're selling. He should check every week, because he's not alone, and there are only so many shoppers out there, and they can vote with their feet and pocketbooks any time they want to.

But by now there was a thought in the back of my head that this restaurant-looking thing at the corner of Tucholskystr. and Auguststr. had a deli in it, and, to my relief, I was right. I got there, and there was a hunk of pancetta. I'd spent nearly an hour by now tracking one down, so I asked the guy behind the counter for 100 grams "or so." The "or so" was so he wouldn't get a heart attack if it came to 104 or 92 grams; Germans are funny that way, and it always amuses me to see the lady I buy coffee from taking out or adding a bean at a time until the digital scale reads 250.0000 grams. So he stared at me. Maybe my accent. I began to ask again, and he said "Pancetta?" "Yes, in one piece." This is because even though the stuff is mostly fat, that just makes it more irresistable to Germans as a sandwich filling. And he continued to stare. Finally, he turned to a young woman standing behind him and repeated my order. She said "You only want a hundred grams?" "Or so," I said, "in one piece."

Another thing the "or so" does is encourage Turks to give me a bit more when I buy olives. It appeared to have the opposite effect on this gal, though, because she came back with a very thin slice and asked if I wanted anything else. "How much does this piece weigh?" I asked, because I needed at least 65g for the recipe, and this looked pretty thin. "Oh," she said, "I don't know." But you're about to ask for money for it, eh? "Could you find out, please?" I asked. By now she and the guy were both staring "go away" beams out of their eyes. But she went and re-weighed it, and it turned out to be 75g. Why should I want to know this, anyway? I'm only the customer!

So I came back here, put stuff in the fridge and sat down to write this as therapy. I keep forgetting: the customer is always wrong. The customer is the annoyance that keeps you from having an eight-hour coffee-break.

At least Mrs. B wasn't scowling at me when I got back here. Maybe she'll go back to Dusseldorf soon. Or get hit by a car.

1 comment:

Shona said...

Yes, that whole anti-customer service thing can be a bit hard to take sometimes. Although you can get so used to it that when returning to your native country, the friendliness in shops feels slightly overwhelming!

And re having a flat in Berlin - my Hausmeister has never quite forgiven me for putting a sticker with my surname on my letterbox as opposed to using the "correct" method of getting a label from him with the required font. How scandalous of me.