thomas detlef propp – The Big City (1994)

1994 – The Big City



The big city,
my talisman,
brings me luck.
When it carries me,
everything can happen to me.

Well, that is the question, whether one is lucky to live in a big city or just to visit it.

Big cities are dangerous. Even German ones.

Take Berlin, for example. We’re sitting comfortably on a bench in the city district of Schöneberg one sunny morning, watching life go by. Depending on where exactly the bench is, we’re bound to see a homeless person with bad breath, or a single mother with her two children.

He will ask us for a cigarette or two Marks, sometimes reciting a poem, which then makes it difficult to tell him to leave.

She parks her baby-stroller in front of us, and the kids begin smearing ice-cream on your trouser, or your coat, or dress… it depends.

If we’re sitting comfortably on a bench in the city district of Dahlem, one would never expect such events to take place. Perhaps someone with their dog will come by. The dog starts briefly sniffing at your feet while the owner tries not paying attention to you, so he won’t have to say hello, in case you are neighbors. The people in Dahlem don’t like mixing with others.

We can also run across dog owners in the district of Wedding, Moabit or Marzahn. The people here wear the uniforms of the „active unemployed“, that means, easy-to-care-for, polyester jogging suits in shrill colors. It’s something like pyjamas for daytime. No need to worry whether or not the shirt matches the trousers, or if you should wear a tie. In the morning you just get out of bed and slip into your „outfit“, in the evening slip out of your „outfit“ and into your warm bed. It then ends up in the full automatic washer and dryer „Matura-Duo“ from the company Quelle in Fürth, Bavaria (delivery within 48 hours, one-year guarantee). There’s got to be some comfort in life!

Or we’re sitting on a bench – not just anywhere this time, but on a bench in a bank on the exclusive Kurfürstendamm.

„May I help you?“ the friendly bank clerk asks. And if you don’t mention, that you are here to get information about different kinds of loans, or that you’re waiting for a business associate who has an appointment with the bank director, she will in a friendly but firm tone request you to leave. Everyone has his place on the Kurfürstendamm.

The homeless person, the single mother with two children, the well-to-do dog owner, the man in the jogging suit, the washer and dryer and me. Me, now outside of the bank on the Kurfürstendamm?

What should a tourist do in this city?

You’re walking towards the Gedächtniskirche at Breitscheidplatz. Don’t be afraid of the Germans‘ hostility towards foreigners. Just keep on walking unafraid. Have a look at the people sauntering up and down the boulevard. Tourists and old women with their white hair neatly permed, each with a little dog at their sides. Again and again, these little dogs stop at a tree or a wall and lift one leg in order to do their business. As a tourist here, you’ve got to watch your step.

You are more likely to step into a piece of turd than to encounter a professed anti-foreigner. The latter can, of course, be more dangerous. But then again, only when he is rather drunk with a couple of his comrades riding in a half-empty S-Bahn. On top of that, his relationship with his girlfriend is on the rocks; actually, he hasn’t really got a girlfriend at all, nor a job or a car that works. Only his TV works, and that 24 hours a day. He never switches it off because when he steps out, it is only for a moment anyway. Just to pick up some friends and a few more beers for the evening. And then he sees you standing there looking just like a foreigner looks. The insolence of it! And in Berlin at that! Can’t you stay in your own country? It’s crowded enough here as it is.

We don’t want to excuse him. But he doesn’t know any better. Germans were taught to protect their inner feelings. Deep within them, there is supposed to be ‚Gemütlichkeit‘, contemplation, presentiment, longing and ‚Heimat‘. Inside it is nice and warm and cosy. The enemy is outside. He wants to come in and destroy or take away all that which they would like to possess. The fact that they might not possess it gives them all the more reason to attack the enemy. Who else could there be to blame?

Nothing very nice has ever come from outside, anyway. First of all, the weather in Germany, especially in Prussia, is on the chilly side. Secondly, the authorities, especially the Prussian ones, were also rather cold. Ever since the days of the Kaisers, the Berliners were given one whenever they opened their mouths. That way they grew to be properly disciplined and punctual. The remote control always belongs on top of the TV and nowhere else. If not, where would we otherwise be. As a precaution, the chin is drawn in a little, and they walk slightly hunched over. The shoulders stooped forward in order to protect their necks.

And still the Berliners are unafraid and proud! After all, they too are one of God’s creatures and all of God’s creatures have the right to a decent life.

But what good is courage and pride when you are constantly being cut down to size?! As the Kaiser said, be quiet, don’t move or think too much! „Shut up!, Read!. Write!, Sit still!, Don’t think!“. As the English teacher says, „Don’t argue!“.

The Berliners have learnt to express their pride and deep-seated feelings for human dignity through their jargon and intonation.

Whoever attempts to imitate the original Berlin dialect, will begin to sense the held-back force, the undefeatable impetuosity that these proud creatures have kept and preserved in their language. Try it: draw your chin slightly in and let your front teeth and shoulders come out a bit. Pull the sound of your voice out from deep within your being and don’t let it end up becoming a mumble between the teeth. You should loudly say: „Det gloobick nich!–Mir kann keena!–Baalin!–Baalin!–Baalin!

We can feel it. This pride and this invincible desire for freedom of the Berlin population is retained here.

Let’s go over to Oranienburger Straße in the district of Mitte and watch the going-ons there. It’s already autumn and cool, as it so often is in Germany. Nevertheless, benches are still brought out until they begin gathering the first traces of snow. Tourists, students and other versions of the unemployed begin putting their heads together. Dogs are more seldom here, but bigger to make up for it. Conversation topics include art, theater, science, music and society. And the words „left“ and „right“ still arise. And there are clumsy attempts at using these and other words to discuss how to make Germany a little cooler on the inside and warmer on the outside. How the schools and parents and the government agencies and, of course, the theater and the arts would have to look in accordance. And everyone is somewhat pale and smokes too much, and the dogs pull on their short leashes. Here, too, we come across the Berlin dialect, although in its East German variation – a special case, which might have once become a language of its own, now only to be diluted by the contemporary German language used in the media. You smile a little as you walk by, you look at the people’s face and think that the beginnings of a war couldn’t arise from this little patch of German soil any time soon. And you hope that you’re not fooling yourself. And you turn up the collar of your coat and sit down on one of these benches.

And you begin to think, that there really aren’t so many reasons, not to spend a few days in this distorted city. Colder than in Rome, warmer than in Stockholm, quieter than in New York. Simply a city to be in for a few days, or to live in.


Berlin, 08.10.1994