Is Berlin the land of opportunity? For one woman from Romania, it's a chance to get by with her main talent: playing the accordion. Here's what it's really like to be a street musician in Berlin.
Suspended between Spree and S-Bahn, Ionela Lacatus perches on a cardboard mat and crafts a lively melody on her accordion. Each morning, sun or snow, the 35-year-old Romanian woman plays to commuters as they scuttle over the footbridge beneath the train tracks at the Berlin Friedrichstrasse station.
Around 2:00 p.m., Lacatus finishes playing for the day. She packs her instrument and her bag, folds her cardboard carefully and stashes it in the metal framework of the bridge. En route to a café, I stop to capture an image of her young son. His curiosity is uncontainable as he darts here and there. Reeling him in, Lacatus places her hands on his shoulders. They smile together.
This is what it comes down to: the strange language, the cold and the clink of coins. It all means better chances for her child than he would have had in her old life.
'Here is it good'
At the café, we communicate in a patchwork hash of German, English, Spanish and Romanian. Lacatus left her home in the city of Bacau 10 years ago. Now she lives with her family in the district of Neukölln. She likes Berlin, she says.
"Everything is good for me. Berlin is better. Because here I make money. In Romania I had no work - an apartment, but no work. It is difficult for me, I have two children. I have a girl, 16 years, and my son, five years. It is difficult in Romania, but here it is good. Every day, every day."
Her son, Alex, is a lively boy with bright brown eyes, a radiant smile and the apparently insatiable urge to explore everything in sight - but he's shy about speaking. Above and beyond the normal bashfulness of a child in front of strange adults, he is also dealing with language barriers. He isn't enrolled in school yet and doesn't speak fluent German. But his mother coordinates with another woman to get him to daycare. He is learning and she insists that he will go to school when it's time.
Her daughter wasn't so lucky. Already well into her teenage years, she can only speak limited German and is not enrolled in classes. "No school," Lacatus says tersely. When asked what her daughter is doing now, she shakes her head and averts her eyes.
Lacatus has been playing the accordion ever since she left her homeland - for about 10 years. She doesn't find it particularly difficult. "For me, nicht complicado," she says in a polyglot blend typical of our conversation. She had no formal training, but picked up a bit of technique from both parents and began to riff on traditional song patterns.
Nowadays, she relies entirely on improvisation to shape the tunes with which she charms Berlin's business crowd. Lacatus plays by feel and instinct while her thoughts wander. What does she think about during the long mornings on the footbridge? "Children, daycare, everything."
With winter approaching, Lacatus has begun to add layers of clothing, but nothing can entirely keep out the frigid air moving over the Spree River. When asked how she copes with the hours of cold and keeps her fingers limber to play, she shrugs stoically. "It is cold, but I'm doing it for 10 years, it is all the same." She doesn't seem to feel the wind's bite anymore.
I ask whether she struggles in speaking with German-born Berliners. Of course, Berlin is a place where many expats get by without using the local language at all, but many of them speak English well. Lacatus hesitates. For what she needs, speaking isn't so complicated, she says, although the Berliners speak too quickly - but then, she doesn't often have time to engage those outside of her family in long conversations. "No talking, I have no time to talk."
Her street music gig on the Friedrichstrasse bridge brings in approximately 20 euros (almost $25) per day, for about seven hours of playing. Is that sufficient to scrape by? "No. It's not enough. It's complicated. For the children, for me and my husband," she sighs.
When asked if she receives any help from the state, Lacatus shakes her head. Of course she would like financial assistance, she shrugs, but it isn't available. She and her family have to do the best they can on their own. Then there are the language courses, integration programs and other resources for immigrants offered through official outreach centers, but she can't break out of the daily grind to support her family long enough to invest the necessary time. "The school is there, but every day, I must, must work. I have no money."
Smiles and spiders
Her existence may not be easy, but Lacatus shows no bitterness and no sense of entitlement - only the will to make things work and gratitude for the ways in which her life has improved over the last decade. She insists that she loves making music, and she has a warm thank you for everyone who passes and leaves a coin. When none of the passersby pause, she gazes into the middle distance with a peaceful Mona Lisa smile which is sweetly benevolent in its acceptance of the world - be it cold, indifferent or populated with entirely too many spiders, as the bridges in Berlin so often are.
Her audience also has a legendary reputation for being brusque, prickly and suspicious - and eternally in a hurry. However, she has only kind things to say about the Berliners. How are they truly, as people? She thinks for a moment. "Good, for me, all."
Still, the streets of any city are a rough place. I remember meeting her on the bridge in the early afternoon, just as a raucous group of drunk, apparently unemployed skinheads stumbled past. They slowed, glanced over, and I felt cold unease in my gut, worrying that they might say something aggressive to this small Romanian woman and her child. But they kept moving.
Later, Lacatus assures me that her work is safe enough - she insists that she has never once been robbed of her earnings or intimidated for her prime place on the footbridge. Plenty of other individuals compete for the attention and coins of the commuters - from a punk and his dog in the mornings to a psychedelic guitarist with a dancer in the evenings - but she is part of a relatively stabile ecosystem without internal violence. "Not friends, but not competition," she says.
Alex seems to share her resilient optimism. Like any other child, he makes energetic airplane noises and pushes a toy truck with enthusiasm across the café table, deep in a world of imagination. I wish I could break through the barriers of language and shyness to ask him if he dreams of flying a plane, driving a truck - or if not, what exactly he would like to be when he grows up. When I try, he giggles and looks away, Lacatus smiles and shakes her head - he doesn't know yet, perhaps. Or maybe his hopes are already there, nesting in his mind, waiting for the words to give them form.