When Kadir Nurman invented the döner kebab in Berlin in the early 1970s he was presumably just hungry. He, presumably, had some fatty meat, some veggies, a bit of sauce and a piece of bread left over. But his invention offered an extension to everyday life, to give reminiscences and arguments a place to be held outside of pubs, outside of expensive restaurants. It was to Nurman that I raised a cheap Schultheiss last night as I watched Germany beat France for the first time in years, but as I sat in the kebab shop that has been my restaurant on the corner of my street the last four or so years I slipped into a maudlin mood and raised a glass to absent friends, and to those who will not be here much longer.
It wasn’t a very exciting game it has to be said – friendlies rarely are – but the warmth of the kebab shop is always inviting. You can smoke to your lungs’ content there, putting away the beers in a small windowed extension to the corner restaurant that holds only a small bar, a metal counter and a couple of time worn fruit machines. The old guys in there are the same every day. They are my neighbours. They have cracks in their faces deeper than the Mariana Trench, they jabber and argue in voices so swollen with bass from the cigarillos and fags puffed constantly that only their friends and snakes can understand the full sentences. The pronunciation is guttural, those Gs that become Js that become Ys. The vowels are often as incomprehensible as the hacking coughs that fill the thick air.
They acknowledge me as I go in, none of them live in the same house as me, but we know each other enough to nod, enough to know that we know each other but don’t really understand a word any of us ever say. This is why it is so reassuring to hear them use the same tones on each other when someone has misunderstood a point. That brutal, schoolmaster, “Neeiii-eeii-nnnn” is universal. We have watched football and handball, the Olympics and ski-jumping in there together, but apart.
It is a hell of a mix in there, seven or so old guys, Turkish and German, black and white. They keep half an eye on the TV but are arguing about the Napoleonic Wars. One listlessly feeds an endless supply of coins into a hungry fruity as France take the lead just before half-time. There is muttering, but nothing untoward. It is just a friendly; these sexagenarians have seen more important things in their time. The argument continues, faces come and go, but something about them looks the same and they all bark with the same gruff tones.
The two Turkish guys watching don’t pretend to care about Germany winning, and I struggle to as well. Since the Huguenots were welcomed Berlin (in its most intimate settings at least) has often been a tolerant place. In the kebab shop we are allowed to support Turkey or England or, frankly, anyone but Germany. It doesn’t matter, and despite the rustic looks on their faces, these old Germans don’t give a crap about it either. They are happy that Germany score again, through Sami Khedira, a German with Tunisian roots, but that he wears and scores in the white shirt is enough. They are happy that Ilkay Gundogan, a German with Turkish roots, sets up the winning goal with a beautiful pass after a clever, tenacious and timely intervention. But it doesn’t matter, really.
I held back some tears towards the end of that second half. Yesterday my neighbour Tina died. She was only 54, and has left a daughter of 14 behind. She was just like these guys, a smoker, a jabberer, a drinker – she knew them all certainly. She was part of the Neukölln that I moved to, was infinitely kind and patient and always asking about our lives, always interested. She is another of the old faces that won’t be seen around here too much in the future. Like these old boys, or the three remaining original neighbours in my building, struggling through into their sixties. One of them looks like a walrus wearing an ill-fitting man costume (and sounds like it too), but he has never been anything other than generous to us as outsiders since we moved in, never been anything other than a good neighbour. A loud neighbour, but still just that. A neighbour.
That people die and things move on isn’t new – so ist das Leben – and I can’t exactly rail against the English moving to Neukölln in droves. So am I part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s a good question. I like to indulge myself that the problem isn’t me, it’s those other, newer ones, who don’t watch football in kebab shops with their neighbours, but this is probably far from the truth. Certainly the solution is not to stop the outsiders from moving to Berlin, the thickest end of a wedge that starts with the bracketing of young foreigners as “the hipsters”, as a homogeneous group devoid of their own identities. It is just sad that for the guys sat around me in the kebab shop, half watching the game, they are being replaced. Like Tina will be. So ist das Leben.
France push on in the last five minutes, but a timely lunge from Mats Hummels and a good stop by Rene Adler helped Germany to hold on. For those last five minutes the Napoleonic argument stopped, or at least receded. For a flickering moment we were all watching the same game with the same intensity. But it doesn’t really matter. They know this as well as I do. I finish my Schultheiss, we nod our goodbyes and I go back home thinking morbidly about who will be the next to be replaced.