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An East Berlin tale November 16, 2005

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Yesterday evening, I stood waiting for the S-Bahn on my journey home. It was freezing and the wait was long and dreary. There was some pretty good people-gazing to be done, and some fairly good eavesdropping. This helps while away the minutes, and those minutes fly by even more quickly if any human beauty enters the field of vision. To my joy, this happened. As is so often the case with me, this took the shape of a man a good ten years younger than myself with a clearly eastern European appearance. We were both in chav winter hats, our eyes met and a flicker of comprehension seemed to be exchanged. I knew he couldn’t be a woofter, so I suppose the comprehension from my point of view was simply that I had clocked a tormented Slavic (or so I thought) soul and he had clocked simply that I had clocked. As we waited on, our eyes met a few more times, in the least flirtatious way possible.

A minor ripple of excitement went along the platform as we all collectively thought our train had arrived, only for us to be thwarted with the comprehension it wasn’t. But this had us all huddled more closely together and here my Osteuropäer took his chance. “Ты, это, русский знаешь?” I answered that I did. “Этот едет до Alexander-Pushkin-Platz?” Did he mean Alexanderplatz, I asked, for even the Ossies, for all their fraternal generosity, hadn’t named a square Alexander-Pushkin-Platz to the best of my knowledge. “Ой, да, этот, Александерпляц.” It did, I explained, the novelty at speaking Russian to a stranger beginning to wear off and thoughts of how to get home with my life and my wallet beginning to overwhelm.

The right train drew up. My pal got on next to me and I resigned myself to Russian small talk for the journey. The oddest thing for me was that, for the first time ever, I had been mistaken for a Russian. Maybe it was the hat, or the thought that me catching his eye a couple of times was acknowledgement of the complicity of Russian souls, when really I just fancied him. I eventually explained that I was English, he that he was not in fact Russian, but from Moldova. He explained that he had been thrown off the Cologne-Dresden train for not having a ticket – if you’re going to be thrown off, get thrown off in Berlin, I suppose – and now asked if he could use my mobile to phone a friend (though not in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire sense). Why had he come to Germany, I asked. “Да, в Молдавии, бля, одна херня, одна бедность.” Whatcha gonna do in Berlin, I asked. “Да, учиться, правда, не знаю на кого.” My interlocutor was a handsome thug, and looked clean, yet he stank like someone who’d had too many gins – though it must have been vodka – and had the bodily fragrance of someone who had only the most distant of relationships with a bar of soap. He looked at me with an aggression utterly out of place in the friendlyish chit-chat we were having and the like of which I have only ever experienced in my time in Russia. Once he knew he was dealing with a foreigner, he was primed for the slightest offence, ready to spring at the least opportunity. But I’ve played that game pretty frequently in my time and avoided any topic I thought might be dangerous.

We talked about London, and England, and St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and Dresden, and Cologne, and Berlin, and Germany. All did fairly well on our ad hoc scale. Only Moldova came in for a bollocking at every turn. How was he allowed to stay in Germany, I asked, straying onto the most dangerous territory I would allow myself, casting caution to the wind as I began to think he in fact thought I was all right for a foreign poof and wasn’t going to bother to steal my phone and wallet. “Как ты сюда попал?” “По еврейской линии,” he answered, to my amazement. “They don’t make Jews like they used to,” I thought to myself, and wondered whether his link to Judaism was as tenuous as that of half the Russians who’ve recently emigrated to Israel.

I liked my thug, all in all. Here he was, drifting around Germany, ringing a friend late evening to say he’d been thrown off a train and could he come and stay. No shame. Just the facts. And he was here to try and better himself; the means were the only worry. “У вас бумажные паспорта?” he asked. Who could ask whether British passports were laminated or just papery but for some young naive thug with only the vaguest idea of how he was going to feed himself tomorrow? He was just like Danila in Брат, happy to slit my throat if I’d told him that, yes, British passports were nice and crappy and papery and he could easily stick his photo over mine, or, as the case turned out, to shake my hand warmly and friendlily as he said good bye to me at Alexanderplatz and thanked me for all my help. Yet knowing that he was being met by a friend (who’d rung my mobile back, thinking I was his friend, with a, “Ну, это, ты тут бля?”), and erring on the side of caution, I chose to miss my stop, also the feted Alexander-Pushkin-Platz, and stay on till Friedrichstraße and get the tram home from there…



1. Anonymous - November 17, 2005


I read “Once he knew he was dealing with a foreigner, he was primed for the slightest offence, ready to spring at the least opportunity.” – I’m curious – can you explain about this and Russians pls?



2. Broke in Berlin - November 17, 2005

Hello Jon,

What I meant is that his attitude towards me changed when he realised I was English and not Russian or from the former SU. (He was Moldovan himself, not Russian, but a Russian-speaker, of course.) He took on a different attitude and I knew that, as a ‘real’ foreigner, I had to do more to, as it were, earn his respect and that he was finetoothcombing whatever I said. I know I was generalising, but this was an attitude I often met in my time in Russia, that people appeared on the lookout for derogatory remarks from ‘outsiders’. (I didn’t make any.)

I don’t claim a non former-SU person can’t have a proper relationship with someone from the former SU. I just think you have to go through an extra layer of foundation-laying before that happens.

Yours, and thanks for your question.

3. Mark Holland - November 17, 2005

Incredible tale. You’ve certainly got your wits about you BiB.

4. Blonde at Heart - August 28, 2006

I am very often mistaken for a Russian. My answer to them is “ya net gavaro paruski”. It is about the longest sentence in Russian I can articulate.

5. BiB - August 28, 2006

Mark, I’m a crafty, cunning old thing deep down.

BAH, aren’t lots of the Russians who’ve emigrated to Israel not Jewish? Do many of them convert or is it just hoped they’ll gradually jewishise with time somehow?

6. Blonde at Heart - August 29, 2006

Indeed many are not Jewish. That is why the Orthodox churches are full of people. They just use the state of Israel’s immigration policy: Jews are accepted immediately. They pretend to be Jewish so they can come and get all the benefits. Not nice.
On the other hand, many of these youngsters join the army and fight for Israel.

7. BiB - August 29, 2006

And do many convert?

8. Blonde at Heart - August 29, 2006

I do not know.

9. BiB - August 29, 2006

The Russian’s neighbours from back in Russia are perhaps typical. The father of the family was Jewish, and he and his wife and their daughters all moved to Haifa. Don’t know if his wife and daughters have converted since.

Are many Israelis worried about this sort of thing? I mean, that there are more and more Christians, Muslims, non-Jews in general? (Isn’t there also a big Thai community there?)

10. Blonde at Heart - August 29, 2006

It bothers people only when the problem is rising and apparent, say, a very un-kosher deli in a religious area, or when a soldier dies and then they find out he was not Jewish. The East-Asian community is foreign work force. They are supposed to leave, for they need a work visa, and the police are hunting down those who stay in the country illegally.

Israel has many problems, and this is one of them. The police indeed has to deal with illegal immigrants, but the police and the bosses of these workers treat them very unfairly, so say the least.

11. BiB - August 29, 2006

But don’t all Israelis serve in the army, regardless of religion? (The ultra-Orthodox are exempt, aren’t they?)

12. Blonde at Heart - August 29, 2006

No. Israeli Arabs do not serve in the army. The only non-Jews serving in the army are the Druze and the Bedwins. It must be stressed that in non-Jewish communities (and the Ultra-Orthodox) serving in the IDF is not something to proud of (except in the Druze community).

13. BiB - August 29, 2006

I didn’t know that. Do you mean an Israeli Arab can’t serve in the army even if he wants to (not that I suppose many do want to)?

14. Blonde at Heart - August 30, 2006

I do not know. They can do some volunteer service, but not in the army.

15. BiB - August 30, 2006

That’s interesting, and a thorny problem. What’s the logic behind Arabs not being able to serve in the army? Doesn’t that make them feel like less-than-citizens? Or is it seen as a privilege not to have to serve?

16. Blonde at Heart - August 30, 2006

It is complicated. Some would say that they should not serve in the army for security reasons (haha): that it is not good to tell secrets to Arabs, for they will leak them to terrorists. Some would say that they are not loyal to Israel anyway (which is sadly true, for some of them, at least) so they are glad not to serve. I do not know. I never met an Arab-Israeli my age. I guess most of them just accept this situation.

17. BiB - August 30, 2006

…and there was I looking at the whole thing through rose-coloured spectacles, thinking that it was all peace and harmony! So would most Israeli Arabs sooner classify themselves as Palestinians, then? How did they classify themselves before Israel existed? There was no notion of a Palestine then, was there?

18. Blonde at Heart - August 30, 2006

This is a question better referred to Bren, but I will try to answer it.
Before there was Israel, there were not, of course, Israeli Arabs. Before there was Israel the Arabs living now in Israel classified themselves as citizens of the state they lived in (i.e.: Arabs in Gaza as Egyptians, those in the West Bank as Jordanians, etc). Palestinian notion is very recent, I think maybe it started in the 1920s, when Israel (Palestine) was under British mandate. Then again, I do not know all the facts.

19. BiB - August 30, 2006

It seems to me that inventing the notion of a Palestinian nation, and lobbying for a Palestinian state was a very smart PR move on their part. If the lands that Israel conquered in 1967 had simply been considered parts of Jordan or Egypt, the problem might not have been quite so thorny. But by being a landless people, as it were, Palestinians are far more likely to evoke diplomatic sympathy. Often I’ve heard people talking about the Middle East and ululating, “But the Palestinians are stateless. Every nation has a state,” which is patently bollocks. But anyway. For want of a better solution, I think the 2-state solution is still the only option. Or are there Israelis who still hold out for more of the West Bank to ultimately be considered Israel proper?

20. Blonde at Heart - August 31, 2006

Of course there are those who’d better transfer all the Palestinians away or give all Israel to the Palestinians. There are lunatics on both edges of the political spectrum. But the average person (I think) sees the 2-state solution as the best option.

21. BiB - August 31, 2006

Yes, I long for that to happen. Then, maybe there’ll at least be a bad peace, which is better than a good war.

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