Photo by Anna Achon
Friendly, knowledgeable and clean? Berlin cabbies are apparently the crème de la crème, or so claims an international tourism survey. We sent our most intrepid journalist and taxi veteran to put their reputation to the test.
If anyone can tell you about some far-out cab rides, it’s me. Like the time a taxi driver refused to drive me 1.3 kilometres demanding I depart his vehicle at once. In a raging, shouting frenzy I flung the cab door open just as an oncoming tram was passing by and to this day I still hear the frantic tram bells followed by the impact of the beastly M1 inverting the cab door as it screeched down the side of the tram like fingernails across a chalkboard.
The accident was quite a spectacle – mind you this was near Hackescher Markt on a Friday night– and I’m almost sure my shocked and mortified face is floating somewhere on Facebook above the caption, “what a dipshit".
And then there’s the good: one debauched Saturday night ended with me in a taxi, shuffling through my bag the following Sunday morning only to realise my mobile and keys were missing!
The nice Russian taxi driver pulled into a parking spot near my flat, let me use his mobile to trace the whereabouts of my belongings, and after confirming that my items were long gone, he called his brother the locksmith from Marzahn and invited me to a coffee at a nearby café while we waited.
So after recently reading that global tourism surveyors on Hotels.com ranked Berlin’s taxi drivers the best in Germany and third worldwide in friendliness, cleanliness and helpfulness, I decided to put their consensus to the test.
From Charlottenburg to Friedrichshain and everywhere in between, I hailed 10 Kurzstrecken, each costing me €4 plus a 50 cent tip. To raise the stakes, I brought along my stinky, runty, grunty pug dog, Luzie.
17:36 – 17:47
Test drive 1: Torstr./Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz to Eberswalder Str./Danziger Str.
Driver: Hajo from Germany
I enter the 1990s Mercedes E-Klasse in the midst of rush-hour traffic, and Hajo and I have ample time to chitchat. Like a spoiled brat in the backseat, I play with the window buttons, slide to the left of the car and then back to the right while simultaneously popping my gum.
And despite my childish and superfluous questions about the interior of his vehicle, Hajo continues to remain patient and friendly, often diverting the prattle to Luzie.
He pulls the taxi to the corner, smiles and politely announces the fare, remarking, “See how far €4 gets you these days.” Hajo’s scruffy, gentle face and kind mannerisms are enough to rid one of bull-headed perceptions of the traditional German male.
18:13 – 18:17
Test drive 2: Müllerstr. (S-Bhf Wedding) to U-Bhf Amrumer Str.
Driver: Azizzadeh from Iran
A Toyota compact minivan comes to a dead halt in response to my signal, causing the drivers behind and around him to aggressively lean on their horns. A middle-aged face with thin purple lips and coarse grey-black hair greets me.
His voice reveals he’s a heavy smoker as he clues me into stories of his days as a taxi driver in Japan. After he requests my private number for a date, I conclude that Azizzadeh is perhaps too friendly – and a bit out of touch with reality.
18:56 – 19:05
Test drive 3: Kurfürstendamm/ Joachimstaler Str. to Nollendorfplatz
Driver: Anonymous from (presumably) Turkey
Luzie and I climb into the third taxi of the night to have (Turkish) music blaring from the speakers and mini-billboards positioned at eye level. My attempt at an icebreaker fails when I jokingly say, “Either you must love HP computers, or these are ads.”
A few minutes later I attempt conversation, but his German and English are kaputt. I proceed to ask our nameless friend what kind of music we’re listening to, which prompts him to turn off the CD and turn on the radio. Oh, no! I hope he didn’t get the wrong idea.
I try to redeem myself by saying, “Hey, you can leave it on. I love Turkish music!” But it’s too late – the meter beeps and it’s time for me to get out.
19:07 – 19:11
Test drive 4: Nollendorfplatz to U-Bhf Kleistpark
Driver: Ali from Turkey
When I open the door, the driver whips his head around and before I squeeze out the ‘H’ in “Hallo,” he says, “The dog sits on your lap!” I ask him to turn up the bumping Kiss FM song, and he complies.
He’s polite but short. Although my destination is Gleisdreieck, I end up getting thrown out at Kleistpark. I tell him it’s the wrong location and he replies that he does not know where Gleisdreieck is. Really?
19:14 – 19:17
Test drive 5: U-Bhf Kleistpark to U-Bhf Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park
Driver: Omar from Berlin
Classical music fills the taxi. Omar – the offspring of Turkish parents – is friendly and helpful but has a touch of that “Berliner Schnauze”. His views on the US are bold, mighty and (yawn) unoriginal; he rants on about the horrible politics, lack of proper healthcare and ignorant civilians.
The meter beeps and he slams on his breaks, instructing me on how to get to the next U-Bahn station. Upon writing the receipt, he contemplates the date and finally says, “By the way, yesterday was 9/11.”
19:39 – 19:41
Test drive 6: U-Bhf Mehringdamm to Hasenheide/ Jahnstraße
Driver: Michael from the Black Forest
As Luzie and I climb into the cab, my nose is assaulted by Michael’s overpowering cologne. His features, shapely eyebrows and a bushy moustache recall Boogie Nights, but my porno-dreams are soon swiftly quashed.
He declines my peanut M&Ms, and though he’s polite, he isn’t as talkative as I would have anticipated from a handsome man with Marb-Reds packed in his left breast pocket.
19:43 – 19:46
Test drive 7: U-Bhf Hermannstr. to U-Bhf Hermannplatz
Driver: Erra from Turkey
At this point I am a bit more free-spirited regarding my destinations, so when I hop in the taxi and tell Erra to take me in any direction to Kreuzberg, he looks a bit uncertain, responding, “Do you know where you live?”
As rattling Turkish evil eye beads watch over us, he discloses some horror stories of being a taxi driver: “It’s the ladies who bring the most weapons in this cab, oddly enough,” he says. “They usually want to get from point A to point B without paying.” As I jump out, the jolly cabbie wishes Luzie and I, “Alles bestens.”
20:02 – 20:04
Test drive 8: U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor to Falkensteinstr. (in front of Watergate)
Driver: Can from Turkey
Can strikes me as the OG of taxi drivers: the prayer beads swinging from the rear-view, the retro-striped polo shirt and the glorious hook nose are too ideal to be true. This is the quickest Kurzstrecke thus far – less than two minutes.
Our chat is hackneyed and boring, and when I mention I’m from America, his reaction goes something like this: “Really? By the sounds and looks of it, you come across as a German woman.” He leaves me on the curb wondering about his jaded views of Western women.
20:05 – 20:08
Test drive 9: Watergate to U-Bhf Frankfurter Tor
Driver: Dirk from Berlin
In less than 30 seconds, a taxi pulls up. I open the door, and sounds of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories lure me into Dirk’s hotel on wheels where I immediately spot a plush car seat cover. “Oh, very vintage,” I say. “Keeps cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” he says with a chuckle.
Dirk embodies what one expects from a 30-something East Berlin male: tall, slim build, bald head and a crisp “Techno” t-shirt. I call out his thick Berlin accent and he remarks, “Not heard much anymore around these parts. Everyone is flocking to Berlin, and the real Berliners are leaving.”
He drops me off in front of McDonald’s and jokingly asks, “Right here where it’s homely?” Dirk’s black comedy show leaves a bittersweet residue as my journey nears its end.
20:17 – 20:21
Text drive 10: U-Bhf Frankfurter Tor to Scharnweberstr./Finowstr. (home)
Driver: Wolfgang from Berlin
If it weren’t for his leather biker vest, I would mistake him for the prominent American pundit James Carville – the resemblance is uncanny. Wolfgang communicates with half-smirks and few words; his right hand rests on the volume knob throughout the entire Kurzstrecke.
“Is this an audio book?” I ask. He turns the knob to briefly lower the volume. “A crime thriller. On every Monday evening,” he replies and turns the volume back up. “Are you a Berliner?” I shout over the grizzly radio voice. “Of course,” navigating the knob once more. His smile thanks me for the tip, and I pull Luzie and myself out of the taxi, our project complete.
So are Berlin’s taxi drivers the best in the world? They seem to be a bit of a mixed bag, but at the end of the day most of them get you from point A to point B without too much trouble. My final analysis: be good to your driver, and maybe we can change the world... one cabbie at a time.
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