‘The penis on the S-Bahn’, and other tales from Berlin


There was something quite poetic about witnessing an old drunk guy whip out his junk on a German train and deposit a lake of urine around his, and my, feet.

Well, of course there wasn’t. In fact, it was a rather unpleasant experience; a moment which gave a fellow traveller a deeply pained expression, akin to the face I make when I try to work out which of the Gallaghers is which.

But the ‘penis on the S-Bahn’ anecdote is actually pretty useful, providing an instant answer to the question: “How was your trip to Berlin?” Let’s be honest, nobody wants to be subjected to a list of the museums I visited, the various monuments I cried at, and a lecture on German expressionism. I know that, when you ask about my city break, you really mean: “Tell me about the stuffed badger by the toilets in the Checkpoint Charlie museum, but please refrain from explaining the finer details of the Cold War.”

So, in response to such demands, I have compiled a series of brief, useless anecdotes about said trip, a couple of which feature various types of German sausage (geddit?). Here they are, in all their un-glory.

‘Let’s not become statistics, OK guys?’

As I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, much of the population of our little east Fife town pitched up on the German capital’s doorstep this January, in the culmination of the Race2 charity hitchhike. Never before has a foreign city been so full of familiar faces. Owing to a slightly nervous disposition and a general dislike of The Public (I refer you to a previous column on public transport, in case you don’t believe me), I did not take part in the race, opting for a cheap and leisurely flight instead. I met up with my more adventurous friends at the finish line; those who had flown not by plane, but by the seats of their pants, halfway across Europe. Forgive me for being a stick-in-the-mud, but I was reluctant to become the subject of some grim news story, or the basis of a gruesome urban legend, even if the hitchhike was for charity.

“We’re in Europe now, Jimmy.”

Berliners are about as progressive as they come, and the people of Friedrichshain, who played host to half of St Andrews during Race2 Berlin, are even more so. It’s a working-class district that’s currently undergoing some serious gentrification, described as ‘trendy’ on its Wikipedia page, and home to the East Side Gallery, numerous squats, vegan restaurants, and gay bars. As groups of holidaying Brits go, we were a pretty well-travelled lot, but one of our number proved to be more British, and therefore more squeamish about European liberalism, than the rest. This offered the perfect opportunity to update the seminal fish-out-of-water phrase: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And the beauty of “We’re in Europe now, Jimmy” is in its versatility. It can be used as the antidote to the aforementioned unwelcome genitals, or to explain away any number of other continental misdemeanours, like sauerkraut for example.

The ‘fish lift’

Allow me to introduce you to the comedy stylings of ‘Paul’ and ‘Richard’, the Finest Tour Guides in the West/East. Several inches of snow had made a walking tour out of the question and we opted, on our second day in the city, for a bus tour of all the major sights. And what a clever decision that was! For, otherwise, we may never have known the comic genius of the pre-recorded duo, this Morecambe and Wise of Deutschland. They provided not only interesting titbits about landmarks, but also a whole heap of odd, stilted commentary, and useless information. One such gobbet was a long narrative about an elevator in the Radisson Hotel on Alexanderplatz, from which you can view part of the Sea Life Centre next-door. Surely, this was the eighth wonder of the modern world! One friend, a marine biology student, clung to the idea of the ‘fish lift’ for the entirety of our trip, suggesting a visit whenever it seemed there was a spare hour. Needless to say, we didn’t see the ‘fish lift’, but I’m pretty sure it’ll merit a second trip to Germany in the near future.

Brecht doesn’t live here anymore

As a result of my parents’ obsession with collecting Lonely Planet guidebooks, I had been furnished with a guide to Berlin well before I ventured forth onto the continent. I had read the sections on beer, the Brandenburg Gate and the U-Bahn in advance, of course, but I had tragically overlooked the crucial first page of the guidebook, the bit where it says: “This edition published in 2009”. Several times during our five-day stay in the capital, I was the ringleader in a wild goose chase across the city, determined to locate a bar or restaurant that no longer existed. Most upsetting of all was the revelation that the Kellerrestaurant, a tavern under the house where Bertolt Brecht once lived, had been closed in favour of a lecture hall. However interested you may be in epic theatre, a reading of Saint Joan of the Stockyards just isn’t the same as bratwurst and mustard.

A badger next to die toiletten

I’m pretty certain that you’ve been on the edge of your seat since the earlier mention of the stuffed badger. Well, that moment is upon us, the moment when I will tell all. Sadly, there’s not actually that much to tell. ‘Stuffed badger by the toilets in the Checkpoint Charlie museum’ does what it says on the tin/glass cabinet. The museum, which stands opposite the iconic Cold War landmark, may well have been curated by a German equivalent of Channel Four’s Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder. Mind you, it’s all interesting stuff, but the layout of certain exhibits requires a contortionist’s flexibility. Until you reach the final room, which is completely empty but for a couple of plastic chairs, and the entrance to the loos. And a badger in a glass case. Apparently, the poor creature was shot by a Stasi officer at some point during the Cold War. I imagine he might be pretty miffed to find it shoved next to the toilets. But, now that I think about it, perhaps that was the whole point.


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