An Open Letter To Berlin

Dear Berlin,

I wish I could say it was lovely seeing you on my last visit, but sadly not – and therein lies the reason for this letter.

We’ve had a mostly cordial relationship these last 5 years that I’ve visited you – you never visit me – but that’s a different story.  My past visits have been mostly enjoyable probably because I met and hung out with friends – somewhat cocooned from the wider Berlin experience.

Berlin, this last visit opened my eyes to aspects of your personality that I was blind to before and I must confess has left me feeling jaded and disappointed.

Your coldness to strangers – even friendly ones.

I know that for a while you have been suffering with Big City syndrome – having 4 million people bump through you trying to make sense of life can’t be easy and that might account for some of the general apathy with which people treat people they don’t know. I saw this with your cousin, London , too. The friendliest Berliners it turned out were the Turkish taxi drivers and the Slovakian hotel receptionist – and they were hard work!

Nowhere is your trademark unfriendliness more visible than at your Tegel airport. Though I cannot entirely blame you for this – pretty much everywhere in the western world is struggling with customer service – it’s almost like the wealthier we become the less we feel we need to treat others with respect and  conviviality.

The terrible service at the very points where they should be fantastic is disappointing, for example with the disgruntled airport information person where I was directed because the dull, uninspired, ‘could-not-give-a-flying-fuck’ agent at the Lufthansa desk would not check the gate for her own employer’s flight!

Now you know me – I don’t judge and hardly ever on looks – but your airport sucks. While the rest of the world recognises that a classy city has a travel hub that is enjoyable to go through, you seem determined to keep yours grungy and postwar minimalist. That look might work for some, but it doesn’t for me. I suspect your unhappy airport people might be happier with a nicer , better designed airport building to work in. Just think about, that’s all I’m asking.

Smoking in bars? What gives!?

From London to Lisbon, Dublin to Donegal – the rest of your buddies stopped this disgusting habit years ago. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a cocktail bar to be welcomed by the overpowering stink of burning tobacco. My first reaction was ‘oh these Berliners are rather retro – they even have tobacco scented bars to recreate the old days’.

But no, it’s not retro, it rotten. I gave up smelling like an ashtray over ten years ago and I’m not thrilled to be grabbed back into it without my consent. I’m not ranting about people and their smoking habits – if someone chooses to redecorate their insides with carbonic brown with hints of floral pink – go for it. But we had a deal that you would cut that shit out – I think – and I find you not abiding by that to be in really poor taste.

Now, I’m told this is a special Berlin exception – that makes it all the more galling. It’s like having a pass from the head teacher to be a prick, a license to be obnoxious. Be exceptional in your welcome, even in your cuisine. Protect your weird beers with copyright but please consider falling in line with the rest of the Union on this.

I really was tempted to send you my dry cleaning bill for 1 pair of jeans, a scarf , my shirt and my jacket. Lucky for you I’m bald or I would also bill you for getting the stench of smoke out of my hair. But I’m British and we don’t do that – instead we write strongly worded letters.

Bars that only take cash?

One last thing – and this is not entirely on you though you might think it oddly quaint and traditional. Imagine you took some friends out to a big city and bought several rounds of drinks. When the bill came, you reached for your credit card, only to be told that it was cash only. Now this exact situation happened to me and it wasn’t at all enjoyable and I daresay your bars take a particular delight in delivering said notice. To the tourist – especially the well travelled business types – it feels like a juvenile stunt, a final blow against the capitalist machine – which incidentally you are in the centre of, at least in Europe.  All I can say to that is ‘Grow the fuck up’.

It also feels like an extension of your coldness to strangers. Your locals might know this policy, but we hapless tourists don’t and like any inside joke shared in public – it’s not really that funny.

If you insist on having a cash only bar, you might want to also institute a “free drinks if you don’t carry cash” policy.

Come to think of it, you know what is even quainter, cuter and far more traditional that having a cash only bar – people being friendly and helpful and welcoming.
Try that out sometime.

Berlin, I’d be lying if I said my affection for you hasn’t been severely dented by this experience – even more so when I think of all the other places I could be spending my time. Now you have your ways and I respect that. But this experience comes at a time when I am re-evaluating my relationships. Which means that I now think that Krakow, Dublin, Barcelona and most of your other cousins are all lots more fun, definitely friendlier and with a lot less of your point-making. So from now on, I think I’ll  spend more time with them than with you.

What is left of my declining affection prompts me to write this, so please accept it in the spirit it was intended.

your rapidly receding friend,

ps. Don’t even get me started on the weird profiling that Air Berlin does with my bookings that means half of my flights involve my ticket being suspended and I have to go to their ticketing desk to be routinely treated like a criminal. My relationship with them is also ending – so no biggie.

Tales from my travels: 50 Bucks!

I’ve met some of the most interesting personalities on planes. Or at airports.

There is something about the transience of travel that seems to bring out a form of casual honesty.

One such encounter was on a flight from Spain to Boston. As we boarded my connecting fight to Boston from JFK, I took my seat by the window and like everyone else seated, waited on others to take theirs.

It’s My Seat

Seated next to me were a Chinese couple – young and obviously very into each other. As we all waited for the rest of the passengers to make their way to their seats, stow their stuff and belt up, this couple canoodled right next to me – all good.

Then a dude comes up to our seat row and begins a most bizarre conversation with the couple -mostly with the lady. It went almost exactly like this:

Dude:  – ‘I think you are in my seat’
Lady  – with the embarrassed smile of someone about to ask a favor of a stranger –  ‘Yes I know, I have a window seat couple of rows up – would you mind swapping so that I can sit with my boyfriend?’
Dude: “Sure no problem – 50 bucks!”
Lady – astounded and confused – “Pardon me?”
Dude – face as straight as laces — “If you want us to swap seats – I’ll need 50 bucks!”

In the meantime, they are holding up the boarding and the usual announcements are interrupting the conversation – but the pressure is on to conclude whatever transaction is emerging. During this time, the couple are speaking to each other rather quickly and in hushed tones in Chinese.

Then the exchange continues.

Dude – “So lady, what do you wanna do – I need to take my seat”
Lady – “Ok  – I’ll pay you $40”

Deal or No Deal

More boarding interruptions and announcements – giving the couple a chance to continue their negotiations – the man is pretty adamant he doesn’t want them to pay.

Lady – “Ok, this is ridiculous. We’re not paying you to swap seats”
Dude – “No problem, please can you get out of my seat so I can sit down”.

At this point the lady gets up, gets her stuff and goes off to take her assigned seat – which was still empty and waiting for her.

This is a lovely spot to end the story. Plenty here to be astounded and ponder over.

The dude sat between me and the man from the Chinese couple whose canoodling was cut short and was clearly not feeling too great about that.
But that is another story.

Photo by MattHurst

Telephones in toilets

What is it with telephones in hotel room toilets?

In this apparently 5-star hotel I’m holed up in Amsterdam – they have 3 phones in this room and one of them installed by the throne in the bathroom.

Clearly I’m not the target audience for this level of communication equipmentization (I’m making that a word!). I have no one to call on a fixed line whilst I’m doing my other kind of business.

Also I guess most of these elegant boarding houses haven’t heard of mobile phones.

Photo by conskeptical