The summer before I left UK for Germany, I was working ‘in town’ which is how people in my part of East London refer to the city centre – or even, to be honest, a lot of the West. I had to get into Liverpool Street and then onto the Circle Line every day, and I was always chatting to German tourists and expats – mainly doctors – about my plans and schemes for the future.
The thing you have to realise is, German tourists in London are kinda of jolly and sweet. They’re just impressed by everything – well, I’m not sure that impressed is the right word. They’re vaguely surprised by the things that are a bit shit, genuinely delighted by anything that’s Very British and Super Cool, and absolutely gobsmacked to meet a British kid speaking German on public transport. They also absolutely want to speak German to you, so I was a bit shocked when I arrived in Berlin and nobody wanted to speak to me at all, and certainly didn’t want to communicate with me in German.
This doesn’t happen in Germany! Because of the Pfand
“Aus dir wird was!”, a white German doctor once told me, as we sat on the tube and I told him I knew the tube in Berlin was called U-Bahn. And I think he kind of believed it.
Now, when I go back home, I’m the German tourist. There’s a new ‘nature spot’ in the park near the house I grew up in, complete with an ocean, like a literal ocean, like the Pacific Ocean, of old drinks cans. Ho, ho, ho, I chortle merrily. “This doesn’t happen in Germany! Because of the Pfand.” My relatives listen with what I can only describe as polite boredom as I describe the deposit-on-the-bottle system we have perfected to such perfect perfection in my new homeland. I walk around the park and take photos of every single sign with a “no scrap value” sticker on the back. “I think Germans must steal signs from parks to sell them on as scrap metal less than Brits do?” I say thoughtfully. “I guess our welfare system must be a bit better?”
After about half an hour at the park, where I am vaguely surprised at how shit the playground toys are, we pop into a coffee/slushy/pie shop. My son is in heaven, because of the slushy, but kind of shocked at how spicy the pie is. “I can’t swallow this,” he says politely. I am in heaven, because of the spicy pie, of which I get to eat two, and grateful I don’t have to finish off my son’s slushy. God, these pies are delicious.
Honestly, all I need in life is for ONE hipster in Neukölln to open a shop – near Hermannplatz von mir aus – selling traditional Cockney pies with an Indian twist and my life would be completely perfect. I’m so German, I spend the duration of my pie-eating time trying to work out what I would name the heavenly pie shop. Some geeky, dorky but brilliant combination of pie and spice, I think? But what? Spiesy? Spies? (S) pie (Y)) Spice pies? No, all shit. Maybe it’s a crap idea after all. Every single person who enters the shop talks to my son about the pair of plastic toy binoculars he has with him. Every single person.
“You can watch birds with them,” a white guy, about my age, says jokingly to him, and winks at me. I am in full German Tourist Mode by now. “This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Germany,” I explain to my aunt. “Strangers. Talking. Making Jokes. Jokes. Winking. Strangers! None of this has ever happened in Germany ever.”
A group of schoolkids comes in, like most people in this part of East London, like me, they’re vaguely brown. One of the boys hears me say “Was soll das?!” to my kid and starts chatting with me. Turns out his parents are Lebanese and he has an uncle living in Frankfurt. He tells me he thinks he’ll get an A in his German GCSE because whenever his cousins come to London to visit, his mum bans them from speaking Arabic.
Suddenly I want to cry, but I’m not sure why. “Aus dir wird was,” I say. And I notice that I actually kinda believe it, too.