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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Night I Met a Nocturnal Squirrel

I lived in Berlin, Germany for a year-ish when I was in college. It was probably the most fun year of my life, and I not only learned fluent German (which had evaded me for the previous 6 years of German classes), but I made some amazing, life-long friends, and learned that I could handle living in a massive city by myself, including navigating any sort of public transportation. I feel like I had a huge advantage in life by learning how to use public transportation in Berlin. I'm sure other cities have much bigger systems, but I doubt many are too much more complicated, as Berlin was divided between two countries for 46 years - during the major development and planning of much of their public transportation system. When the country was reunited, the two conflicting systems merged together in a confusing, overlapping, spiderweb of German efficiency.

There are two different types of city trains - the actual S-Bahn (or city train) and the U-Bahn (subway), but both go under and above ground, seemingly without regard for the other system. There are Strassenbahns (street cars) in the East only. Then they have the most confusing bus system that runs sporadically throughout the entire city. I once had a native Berliner tell me not to use the bus system unless you were comfortable getting out and walking from anywhere in the city after the driver passed the last stop on the regular route and drove miles out of the way "due to construction," only to kick everyone off at some arbitrary location - because, more than likely, you were going to end up having to do just that.

During my amazing year in Berlin, I lived in the far, far east of the city, in a suburb called Wiessensee (or White Lake), with an absolutely wonderful family that I still keep in touch with and hopefully will for the rest of my life. If you know anything about German history, you know that East = Communist. We lived in honest-to-goodness Communist Block Housing. Our apartment building looked identical to the one next to it. And the one behind it. And every other apartment building, three rows deep, down both sides of a five mile stretch of road. Grey, concrete, block housing. The actual apartment was probably not much more than 600 square feet - and there were five of us living there (sometimes more with guests) - my German parents (Roland and Sigrun), their daughters (Louisa, 9, and Josi, 11 years old), me, the cat Mickey, a turtle, and some fish in a 20 gallon aquarium. We all shared one bathroom (with no shower - Germans typically shower with a hand-held nozzle while seated in the tub), and the kitchen could only fit two people standing side-to-side. But this apartment was an amazing marvel of Communist creativity.

Every single part of the apartment seemed to contain hidden storage places. The bench-seats at the table (in the one living area of the house) lifted - and that's where they kept the girls' underwear. The couch seats lifted - and that's where they kept the sheets and towels. There were compartments above the closet doorway - where they kept the dishes. All the beds had hidden compartments where the rest of the family's clothes were kept. I was always fascinated to see what would open next - and what incredibly common household good would be stored inside it.

The family themselves were fascinating and wonderful people. The father, Roland, suffered from a sever case of what the Germans call "Ostalgie," or nostalgia for the East - he was 65 years old, and had lived his entire life in East Berlin (he was only 6 at the end of WWII). He was retired when I lived with them, and he was convinced that Communist East Bloc German had been the height of civilization. He had a good-paying job (he was an armored truck driver who got paid as much as the best surgeon in the country - who wouldn't think that was a good deal?), he had a car (who cares if it was a Trabant and he had to be on a waiting list for 15 years before he got one?), and it was just a simpler time. His gorgeous, young wife (she was 16 years younger than him), Sigrun, worked for the East German police. As far as I know (she didn't talk about it), she JUST worked for the police - and not the Stasi police. When I lived with them, she was a checker at the local grocery store. She liked her job (and made extra money by organizing housing for foreign exchange students - and housing students herself, just like me), but it didn't make nearly as much as she (and everyone else) had made during Communism. Of course, as we know now, Communism is only so perfect in principal - it falls apart when actually implemented. Roland explained this to me in the clearest way I've ever heard (in spite of it being in German).

"In Communism, everyone gets paid the same amount for their job. Say you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. You pay 76 cents for that loaf of bread. But think of all the people who have to be paid just to supply that one loaf of bread! The farmer who grows the wheat. The truck driver who takes the harvested wheat to the factory. The workers who process the wheat into flour. The truck driver who delivers the flour to the baker. And finally, the baker who turns the flour into the loaf of bread. All of those people have to be paid the same amount for their work - for which you only paid 76 cents. And THAT is why Communism didn't work."

Roland used to frustrate me to no end with his outright dislike for all things "Western." We'd be walking around our area of town together, and he'd mumble disgustedly, "look at all this graffiti! We didn't HAVE graffiti in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republic - East Germany)!!" "Well, Roland," I'd say as innocently as I could muster, "they didn't have spray paint in the DDR." Another day, we drove past this old, worn down factory. "That used to be the radio factory. Now they let the whole building go to waste. And they made the best quality radios there - not like this cheap western crap they sell now! We used our radio for 25 years, and it never broke once!" "Yes, Roland, but how long did you have to wait on a waiting list to GET one of those radios?" One day, at home, he was in charge of dinner, so he made spaghetti noodles, put them in a bowl on the table, and put a bottle of ketchup next to it. The girls eagerly and hungrily drenched their noodles in ketchup (while I sat mildly horrified by this "spaghetti"). Roland looked disgusted (by the dinner he himself had prepared), and said, "you Westerners and your ketchup!! You eat it on everything! I wish you'd never invented it!" "Actually, Roland, the Chinese invented ketchup... not the Americans (or so I'd just learned on the awesome German show "Galileo," earlier that day)." But the Ostalgie aside, Roland was a wonderful surrogate dad to me for the year, and it was a fascinating perspective that I'd never been able to consider before I met him.

Because we lived so far in the deep east of Berlin, Strassenbahns were the only form of public transportation I could take to and from the city center. On average, it took about 45 minutes one way from our house to the Humboldt University in downtown Berlin. There were several lines that ran our route out to the house during the day, but at night, there was only one, and it only came every 30 minutes. I had to take an U-Bahn to the train station at Hackescher Markt, then go downstairs, outside, and around back to my Strassenbahn station. I had a terrible habit of missing the Strassenbahn by about 30 seconds. I'd see it pulling away from the station as my U-Bahn rolled slowly in. That always resulted in a cold me, sitting alone at the station for another 30 minutes until the next one came along. On really cold nights, I would start walking across the city to stations further along my route, just to keep from freezing.

One pleasant night, around 2am, after missing my street car by the standard 30 seconds (racing down the train station stairs as fast as I could, dodging innocently disgruntled Germans on the way down, just to turn the corner and see the Strassenbahn pulling away from the station - too late!), I sat at the station and decided I didn't need to pull out my book (I actually took books out to the bars and clubs to entertain myself on these regular 30 minute waits and the 45 minute ride home), but could instead just enjoy this glorious, Berlin night.

The train station at Hackescher Markt was an above-ground station (for both the U-Bahn, the subway, and the S-Bahn, the city train), renovated to it's original 20's ambiance. The entire station was finished in a yellowish-orange subway tile, and it had huge arches over the windows, walk-throughs, and restaurants that were located on the lower floor of the station. I really loved one restaurant in the station because they kept the original tile, even on the ceiling inside the restaurant - the massive, stretching arches made for the perfect atmosphere for traditional German dining, accompanied by the regular squeals and chuffings of the various trains over head.

The Strassenbahn station (an outdoor, 3-walled shelter, much like a normal bus station in America (bus stations in Berlin are marked only by a sign - and that's if you're lucky)), was on the back side of the train station. There was an entrance to a night club on the backside, as well, and all the dumpsters for the various restaurants located on the main level, but otherwise, it was a fairly isolated place - just across the train station from a usually crowded city square, it was surprisingly quiet and relaxed on the back there. Except for the faint thumping of the dance music that emanated from the disco.

This particular night, while I was enjoying a slight Berlin breeze in the perfectly beautiful, warm night air, as I watched the occasional club-goers stumble drunkenly in and out of the disco, I noticed a big tree next to the train station, alongside several of the massive dumpsters used by the restaurants. To my surprise, there were about 3-4 squirrels running around the base of the tree! I'd never seen nocturnal squirrels before, but then again, for that matter, I'd never seen the adorable red-haired, pointy-eared squirrels of Germany before coming to Germany, either. I watched them for a few minutes as they frolicked happily about.

I decided, since I was one of only a handful of people waiting for a Strassenbahn, and knew I could easily get my seat back, to go and investigate these nocturnal squirrels a little closer. As I walked over to them, I noticed they were chirping happily to each other. As if red-haired, pointy-eared German squirrels were not cute enough already, here it turns out, they're nocturnal, AND they like to run around and chirp at night! How heartbreakingly adorable!

Smiling to myself, I crept even closer to these adorable German squirrels. I was about 5 feet away, watching them dance and play, when I suddenly realized one of them must have been injured - his tail didn't look quite right! Instead of the normal, big, fluffy tail, his was skinny, and seemed to be hairless! What could have happened to his poor, adorable squirrel tail?!

Then I noticed - the other squirrel's tails were the same way! How could this be possible? I'd seen German squirrels before, and they most definitely have big, fluffy, adorable tails. As I stood there, filling with concern for these poor, clearly abused squirrels, watching them scamper around, in spite of the trails they'd obviously faced in their short little crittery lives, it slowly dawned on me.

These weren't squirrels. These were, instead, the biggest rats I'd ever seen in my life. Scavenging from the dumpsters, running around the base of the tree, and squeaking wildly with the success of the night - clearly, they had gotten so big because of the constant influx of delicious food from the over-flowing dumpsters. These things were easily over a foot long, not including their tails. I'm sure they weighed twice as much as my miniature dachshund (who rounds out at a healthy 13 lbs).

Horrified, I made my way the short distance back to the station, but their squeaks followed me. I was convinced they were going come after me, and, most likely, eat my toes (or my entire leg - they were that big). I crawled onto one of the little metal seats (with holes in the bottom - how well with THAT protect me from their little ratty fingers and teeth??), and pulled my legs up (as if I could keep myself away from one of them - clearly, just one could overpower me, if it so desired). I stared in horror at them for the remaining 20 minutes of my wait - willing them to stay by the dumpsters and leave me in peace. But I knew they were watching me, laughing at my naiveté. Laughing their ratty squeak-laughs at how they ALMOST fooled me into being lured into their rat-lair.

Fortunately, in all the many subsequent nights that I waited for 29.5 minutes at that Strassenbahn station, I never again noticed the small-dog-sized rats. I did learn, however, that wild boars live among the streets of Berlin, coming out at night to scavenge from the various dumpsters and terrify innocent people as they walk across the various city squares. With that in mind, I consider myself fairly lucky that I only encountered these giant rats. Even a monster rat is no where as terrifying as a real life wild boar. Oh, Berlin, you fascinating city; a part of my heart will always long for you.

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