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Taxi-driver August 5, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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“Tell him I was a Soviet officer.”

My eye tarried perhaps a moment longer than is socially acceptable at such moments, but I wanted to get a hint of passive disdain across as best I could. I thought this was perhaps the worst conceivable conversation I was going to be forced to have with a taxi-driver. I knew nothing about him, of course, and how could I know if he was a straightforward Wessi, in which case he might not give a toss about my fellow passenger’s past as a Soviet officer, or a West Berliner, in which case he might find it vaguely intriguing, or an Ossi, in which case he might have thought, “Were YOU personally here fucking up my country?” or an East Berliner, in which case he might have uttered, “Thanks for the memories”? I tried to think how I could best bend the translation as much as possible to make me not seem like an utter twat. Time for deliberation was short.

“Not a Russian officer. A Soviet officer,” the fellow passenger went on.

The taxi-driver could see this Russian ranting was meant for his benefit. He looked at me inquisitively. I began my first ever (unpaid) simultaneous interpreting mission, without a booth or earphones, from Russian to German. “My fellow passenger wanted me to tell you that he was an officer in the Red Army.” The taxi-driver was d’un certain âge. Not old enough to have fought in WWII himself, but no doubt old enough to have remembered it. To stop my loquacious Russian gent’s ceaseless flow of free association, I decided to naughtily use my tool, i.e. a language he didn’t know, German, to take the conversation off on a bit of a tangent that would make the taxi-driver think I wasn’t a total arse.The taxi-driver was a diamond geezer, it turned out. An East Berliner with a Polish wife who not only listened politely to talk of the private past of someone who’d been in his motor for half a nanosecond, but doubly politely engaged back, asking where we were all from, pointing out sites of interest – admittedly, not many between Tegel and Pankow, but for the airport Tegel itself, I suppose – and then, which, of course, my Russian guests thought was normal, speaking to them in passable Russian and giving them a quick round-up of German history from Hitler to the present-day.

Hands up who knew that Tegel was originally a missile-testing launch-pad? OK, you probably all did, but I didn’t, and the Russian word for such a thing – poligon – instantly made me think of hexagons and Tegel’s hexagonal shape, which is, no doubt, a red herring. Once my Russian guest had got bored of the taxi-driver’s and my tangent and had started out down the long road of his next anecdote, “When I was transporting nuclear weapons to Kazakhstan…”, and once he paused for breath, I thought it was time, you see, to regale my guests – a married couple with a child – with Berlin stories. I knew the wife – my friend – would be slightly uninterested and would much have preferred we get straight down to gossip, but she listened politely. Her husband, with the mention of airports, walls, East and West and cold wars, was agog.

“Tegel airport is the West Berlin airport, and that’s why it’s (sort of) right in the city, because, as you well know, West Berlin was completely surrounded by East German territory. So we’re now still in the West, and won’t get to the East until we cross a bridge at Bornholmer Straße, which, incidentally, was the first place the border opened on that famous night,” I began, primly. This was when the taxi-driver’s linguistic credentials came to the fore. He could follow that I was giving a remedial-class history lesson in Russian with a queer accent. I explained all, but for the Russian boyfriend. He then got down to business and decided to take my talk from remedial-class level to somewhere between A-Level and first-year-university.

So Tegel was a missile-testing thingy. And then, if memory serves, from 1948, the French military airport. Tempelhof – West Berlin’s other airport, now deceased, sadly, sort of – was coming into its own, and, of course, had its moment of true glory during the airlift. But as aeroplanes grew, Tempelhof could no longer cope. Tegel had to step in, and, from 1974 – these are all taxi-driver dates – took over as West Berlin’s airport. The taxi-driver even explained how, after the war, German missile experts plied their trade with whoever happened to be in control of their sector. And the allies were more than willing to have them, as the Germans were leaders in their field. (The former Soviet officer accepted this intelligence without a peep.) Hitler peppered the conversation liberally. No sphincters snapped. We were all paragons of post-war, grown-up civilness.

We got home and dashed to the French restaurant on our quiet street. I explained the boss was your actual French.

“Might he be interested to know I was born in Siberia?” asked my guest.

It’s been a long couple of days.


1. daggi - August 5, 2006

That does sound like it was a tiring Angelegenheit.

2. BiB - August 5, 2006

It was, although interesting meeting someone from the old school. Younger Russians are so different already. I could see him shudder in disappointment that we didn’t propose toasts as we all leapt at our wine glasses at the start of yesterday’s Abendbrot.

3. daggi - August 5, 2006

From the Old Soviet Officers’ School. It does seem to be a shame if proposing toasts and all that has died out (and a miracle that it survived until, I presume, the mid-90s).

4. BiB - August 5, 2006

As far as I know, toasts are still going strong, but I think we were all so exhausted by his anecdotes that we were desperate for a drink.

I was a hopeless toast-giver in Russia. Often, there might not be call for toasts – an informal piss-up, unless a big, collective one to love, or to friendship between peoples, or to those present – but at birthdays, you’d be expected to say something rousing to compliment the birthday boy or girl. I always wished health, love and happiness and hoped that folk would be too drunk or gagging for a drink to notice that this couldn’t have been a more wishy-washy and predictable toast.

5. daggi - August 5, 2006

I’d like to give a toast to those people (which people? where are they?) who know how to give my neighbours a good bout of food- and/or alcohol-poisioning which means they won’t be able to spend half of the week (day and night) drinking and shouting (including the themes to various German 1970s childrens tv programmes, as well as most hits by Wir Sind Helden) with fully open windows. It’s strange, you never see them, but they can always be heard. (Karel) Gott is clearly in league with the Teufel.

6. BiB - August 6, 2006

Good old Mr. Gott. Surely the Czechs’ greatest export, along with pilsner beer, and he’s even from Plzen. Luckily, on the noise front, it’s at least freezing now, so you can shut your place up like Fort Knox and hopefully keep their noise down a tad. I almost long for noisy neighbours. I often suspect mine must be dead, so quiet are they.

7. Ed Ward - August 6, 2006

The real news here is that there’s an actual French restaurant in Berlin. There are supposed to be a couple, but they tend to go out of business very fast; no love lost between the folks who still seem to be fighting the Franco-Prussian War. I await further news of this place.

8. BiB - August 6, 2006

Except, Ed, that I now worry I was lying. Well, not arrantly lying, but being liberal with the truth. I have heard both the boss and the chef speaking excellent French, but also heard them both speaking excellent German. My latest version of the truth might be that the chef really is yer actual French, whereas the boss is a German who lived in France for an age and then decided he wanted to come back to the Vaterland and spread the word. Anyway, it’s all very simple, but the food ain’t bad. The resto is called Déjà Vu, which both the Russian and I worried about, as it’s the third incarnation of a restaurant on those very premises since we’ve lived here, which isn’t long. The street, Binzstr., could not be quieter, so business can’t be easy, but I’m happy to see him having a hint of success these days. He’s now celebrating his first birthday there. I’m not sure how worthy of a diversion it is, but I’m all for eating/supporting local. (Actually, our bog-standard, local pub, Maxi, with various local types – regular, middle-aged folk and young gents with year-round tans and big earrings – serves lovely, standard German fayre.) (I am scared speaking non-German in there, though.) (And only go in when there’s nowhere else to buy fags and end up staying.) (I might not be much of an Epicurean.)

9. GreatSheElephant - August 7, 2006

chef French, owner German? Better that than the other way round, non?

Deja vu frankly is a terrible name for anything food related. Apres avoir mange mon repas, je n’ai aucun desir de le revoir

10. Ed Ward - August 7, 2006

No kidding. Still, this might be worth a visit.

11. Geoff - August 7, 2006

When I lived in Berlin in the late 80s, my father worked at the Berlin Air Safety Centre (the sole place where the 4 formerly allied powers continued to work together pretty amicably throughout the cold war), getting permission for planes to fly through the air corridors from West Germany to West Berlin.

Despite the official cold war positions, the British officers all got on FAR better with the Soviet officers than with the American Officers. Shared love of drinking was one of the main bonding points, I believe.

12. BiB - August 7, 2006

Although perhaps Déjà Vu is actually quite a cunning choice of name. I don’t live in the chiquest – OK, most chic – part of town, and I think he thought, “What French phrase will even Pankow riff-raff understand?” A bit like what’s-his-name Spall in Life is Sweet with his ‘Regret (sic) Rien’, but I think the gent on our street can probably pronounce the name of his resto.

13. BiB - August 7, 2006

Geoff, I can imagine Soviet and British military types hitting it off best. Yes, a great commitment to booze, a similar attitude to manliness and machodom, both feeling superior to all the others, and a good dollop of stoicism. But I think the drinking is the most important thing.

My ex was going to Russia for the first time to experience zero gravity at Star City near Moscow. (He said it was quite the most amazing experience. Wonderfully wonderful. He flew, for fuck’s sake. (And puked.)) He asked me for tips. I said, “Get slaughtered on vodka with them afterwards, and don’t refuse the 98th glass,” and he did it all, heroically. Anyway, he was of Croatian origin, so had a Slavic soul built in.

14. BiB - August 7, 2006

Ed, by the way, and not that I’m trying to unsell my local French establishment, but the best steak I’ve ever had here (or almost anywhere) is the Hüftsteak at Berlin (that used to be Amsterdam), a gayish place on Gleimstr. Utterly delicious, and impossibly cheap.

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