“Why do Germans hate shopping centres so much?” I ask my friend Zandra, as we stroll through Neukölln Arkaden. Maybe stroll is the wrong word. We’re not doing this in a strolling, relaxing, Shopping-Erlebnis type way. We’re doing this in a hungover, headachey, slightly pukey, we-need-to-buy-eggs kind of way.
“Do they hate shopping centres?” She asks me.
“Totally!” I yell. “Think about it. Have you ever met a German who admitted that they liked a shopping centre to you?”
Zandra shrugs nonchalantly. “I don’t know anyone who likes shopping centres,” she says softly.
“Germans hate shopping centres,” I say to her. “They never admit to going to a shopping centre, ever, even when they live next door to one and there’s an Aldi inside. The only Germans who admit they like shopping centres are, like, teenagers and stuff. They love shopping centres. They can shelter from the rain in them and also go shoplifting and stuff.”
“But this shopping centre is full of Germans!” Zandra whispers at me. “I think, like, half of the people in here are actually German.”
“Hmmmmn,” I say. I have to admit she seems to have a bit of a point here. We are surrounded by actual Germans, and a lot of them are even white.
“My teenager loves shopping centres,” I say. “Ryan is always hanging out at Gropius Passagen or Alexa. I don’t need to track him like an American mum, if he ever gets in late from school I know he’s gone to a shopping centre.”
Zandra looks at me, a bit shamefacedly. “I think, er you know, Jacinta. I think nobody likes shopping centres.”
“You think it’s a Berlin thing?” I ask. “Maybe it’s a Berlin thing, and I never noticed. Intellectual German Berliners hate shopping centres – but so do intellectual international Berliners. They’re too intellectual to go to an optician’s and a bookshop in one go? Like that would make their lives too easy or something?”
“I think, to be honest, it’s a cool person thing, Jacinta,” she says, and she looks a bit embarrassed to be saying it out loud.
I guess I’ll just never be cool enough. I never noticed. I literally thought it was a German thing. I can still remember the weekend they built the Ilford Exchange, I’d been at my dad’s for the weekend, and on the Sunday, when he drove me home, we couldn’t drive down the High Street. The signs were this avocado green and the words Ilford Exchange kind of modern in a lumpy, 1980s way – they’re still the same signs, the green has faded so much now they look kind of browny-yellow. I like shopping centres, I don’t know if like isn’t too strong a word. I go to them all the time, and I find them perfectly fine. I enjoy shopping there. I like going to a supermarket and then to a DM.
I know why, though, I always thought it was only Germans who hated them. It was because of my German friend Jens. I remember one time I went to Alexa to have dinner with my son after school. I had sushi and he had MaccyD’s and we sat in the middle bit together – this is the nice thing about eating out at Alexa, this and the fact that it’s so loud there nobody comes up to you and asks you to get your kid to quieten down – and while I was waiting for my son to arrive, my German friend Jens phoned me up.
“ Oh hi. I’m in Alexa,” I said into my phone.
“What on earth are you doing there?” He asked, genuinely shocked.
“Eating dinner,” I said.
“You poor thing,” he said. “I feel so sorry for you. I assume you let Ryan choose where you’d eat tonight. God. How horrible!”
“No, I er. I wanted to come here. I wanted to have sushi and he wanted to have McDonald’s. So that’s what we do, we eat in Alexa, in the middle bit.”
SILENCE. Like one of those long, cold, disapproving German silences. I think he would’ve been less shocked had I said I wanted to eat dogshit scraped off of a Friedrichshain pavement.
And I think British people my age and older never hate shopping centres. We remember what there was before shopping centres – markets and stuff, yuck. When my parents visit Berlin, we have to do a tour of all their favourite Berlin shopping centres. We start off at Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, then go to Neukölln-Arkaden, then finish up at Ring Center 1 and 2 for some Chinese noodles. They love those cheap, greasy Chinese noodles you can get in the basement of a shopping centre, they sit there, eating as slowly as possible, and every two minutes shouting to each other how delicious but cheap it is, and how big the portion, and how much it would probably cost in Britain. Sometimes, on the way home, we pop into Alexa. I haven’t told them about the Mall of Berlin yet. Or that orange monstrosity across from Warschauer Straße, EastSide Mall or whatever it’s called.
“Actually, the other day I walked past EastSide Mall,” I say to Zandra as we walk round the Neukölln Kaufland. Even people who hate shopping centres must love this Kaufland. It is the best Kaufland in the world, I literally love it here. I am feeling quite hungover though, I feel like I might puke, maybe Zandra’s horrifically decadent idea of getting a taxi back home isn’t so bad after all.
“And I thought the following words to myself. You know what I thought? ‘That mall is so unnötig. It is a seriously unnötig mall.’
“What does unnötig mean?” Zandra asks.
“Unnecessary,” I say. “And then I thought OH MY GOD I AM SO GERMAN NOW!”
Zandra drops a box of eggs on the floor, and we move away quickly, as if the broken eggs have nothing to do with us. In literally any other Kaufland in Germany, broken eggs on the floor would be incredibly embarrassing, but this is the best Kaufland in Germany and the staff are just glad if you don’t start masturbating over the lettuces.
“But maybe it has nothing to do with being German,” I say, steering the trolley round the corner to the tills. “Maybe in my old age, I am getting cool. Huh?”
Zandra doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she’s a bit intimidated by having such a cool, older, almost-German friend, I say to myself, and quickly throw a Bifi in the trolley. You’re never too hungover for a Bifi.