Espiner's Berlin : Brits go home!

Fresh from voting for the EU in Berlin, Mark Espiner comes face to face with intolerance for the English language (and its speakers) in the playground.

Mark Espiner won't go home. Instead he is going to write more pieces for his column "Espiner's Berlin", he promised.
Mark Espiner won't go home. Instead he is going to write more pieces for his column "Espiner's Berlin", he promised.Photo: Thilo Rückeis

Voting really does make you feel like you are a part of something, like you belong. Well, that’s what I thought anyway, when I went to the polling station on Sunday for the EU elections and Tempelhof referendum. That was before I saw how ugly things can get. And how quickly.

I have already given some of my thoughts on voting - and my frustration at not being able to have a say on public space in the city I live and pay taxes in. But as I sat in the little cubicle getting ready to put my cross in the box, I had a look at the long list of parties that Germany was offering up for consideration. There were the Communists and The Marxist Leninists – a bit of a throwback to 1968, don’t you think? – and The Pirates who look like they’ve sailed off into the sunset. Then there was The Family Party – surely full of squabbles and fiery arguments over nothing that are forgotten the next day – and the Bavaria Party. What does that stand for: BMWs and Weisswurst? Or Weissbier and hard-to-follow accents? Probably not a lot of support for them in Berlin, but The Animal Party, I thought, probably gets a good turnout – that’s if the dog owners are anything to go by. Is it just me or has the number of dogs trebled in Berln, especially those small ones that look like mops?

The diversity gave me a warm glow. Like my new Moabit neighbourhood, the area I recently moved to (yes, I’ve left Alexanderplatz behind and hopped over the ghost of the wall to the West) it seemed a real mix, diverse and dynamic. I skated over the less palatable parties, foolishly thinking them irrelevant.

"Yes, but I’ve lived here longer"

So, it was with a spring in my step, happy at having done my civic duty that I went to a nearby Moabit playground with my daughter. That, too, is usually like the Sesame Street set, with kids from all sorts of backgrounds, some of them selling home-made lemonade or setting up an impromptu fleamarket of old toys. That day, though, it was pretty empty. While my daughter played on the swings, I sat on the bench enjoying the evening sun, when a tall middle-class German guy came into the playground with his child and his dog. He thought it was fun to teach his dog how to run up and down the slide. It wasn’t fun for my daughter, who was badly bitten by a dog on Alexanderplatz. “Dogs aren’t allowed here,” she cried anxiously and jumped off the swing. Bouyed up by my voting experience, I thought I would perform a citizen’s duty. In my best, although pretty faltering German, I said, “Excuse me, but dogs aren’t allowed in the playground here.”

“I know. But I live here,” said the man, as if that was somehow a justification.

“So do I,” I replied, with an almost reflex reaction.

“Yes, but I’ve lived here longer,” he said, as if that would be the end of it.

“How do you know that?” I responded. And then, because in this quick fire exchange I couldn’t remember the German words for “the sign says No Dogs Allowed” I simply said it in English.

“I don’t understand English,” he said with a flash of anger. “You should learn German.”

Fair point, I thought. And I have been trying to do that, but it’s not as easy as I thought it would be with 12 different words for “the” and the joiningtogetherwordstobeaslongasyouliketendency which you can’t look up in a dictionary.

"Go back to England. Go back to England. Go home to England"

Nevertheless, I reverted back to my bad German and said, “Anyway can you please take your dog out, my daughter was bitten recently and she’s scared of them.” I was going to add that dog worms and shit and piss don’t go together with children playing in the sand. But before I could, he said he couldn’t understand my German. I should go back to England.

I turned and went. Not to go back to England, but just to turn my back on him and his ignorance. And as I did, he said it again and again and again. Go back to England. Go back to England. Go home to England.

So I had to go back to the playground again and look him right in the eye, face-to-face, as if to say just with the look, I am a neighbour not a foreigner.

Since then I’ve recounted the incident and the reactions of my English friends have been interesting, ranging from: “Well, that’s what you can expect if you speak English”, to “Well of course English speakers are becoming a target of hatred, for changing the city from a utopia to a capitalist capital.”

Aside from having a less than one percent feeling of what it must be like to be on the receiving end of real racism, the incident left me with a distinctly odd feeling as the results of the EU elections came in. UKIP in the UK, the National Front in France and the startling news, to me at least, that racism is on the rise in the UK. Now, I thought, more than ever we need the European idea. It’s an ideal of tolerance and of sharing and understanding, of limiting the idea of “others”.

While we’re on the subject of tolerance, maybe mine should extend to dogs. I do try to tolerate them. It’s hard, but I try. Even the one that my anti-English friend had, which, incidentally, was a West Highland White Terrier. Apparently, then, he didn't seem to mind the Scottish.

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