Warning: What follows may be shocking for sensitive non-Berliners.
"How long does it take to Alexanderplatz station?" a tourist asked the driver of the Tegel Airport express bus.
"If more people go on asking stupid questions like you, it will definitely take a very long time," replied the driver. It was 9 a.m.; the beginning of a typical Berlin day on the bus.
For those living in this city, similar scenes have already become routine. On a good-mood day, you might even chuckle at this behavior. But for a foreigner, or even a Berliner with no tolerance for "funny" dialogues, this is a nightmare.
Welcome to Berlin!
The rude bus driver phenomenon is, in fact, so blatant that the Berlin Senate invested 200,000 euros in a campaign aimed at convincing government employees and people in the service sector that good manners should be part of their job.
The Berlin campaign "Herz und Schnauze" ("Heart and Snout"), aka the "Friendliness Offensive," began in March 2009 in an effort to spread the idea that Berliners are actually kind-hearted people. They just can’t do anything about their loud mouths. In other words, if you ask for directions and get the reply, "Do I look like an information desk to you?" don’t get angry. Feel welcome.
You have to be gifted with a cranky sense of humor indeed, in order to understand the local philosophy of service orientation. Hence, as city authorities came up with the idea that not all nations are as "talented" in terms of wittiness as the inhabitants of Planet Berlin, they made policemen, street cleaners and people in transport wear badges with "I" for "info" on the, spread maps and basically be all smiles with whoever should need their advice.
But you can’t just be what you’re not, right? Apparently, some bus drivers got even angrier about the newly imposed task. I mean, what would you think, if you got on the bus one day and the chauffeur screamed at you to get off, because he doesn’t feel like driving a crowded coach?
Sometimes, people just back off scared and wait for the next one. But often, such dialogues end up with loud altercations or even threats from the passengers. "I have connections, you’re going to lose your job, you beep…beep…idiot," answered one particular passenger after having been sworn at for blocking the bus driver's view through the rear mirror. Some commuters were nodding their heads approvingly; others were laughing out loud.
I doubt, though, that the former German Minister for Economy, Michael Glos, in 2009 found it funny when confronted with a real-life example of the capital's friendliness. He was stopped by a policeman because he had been driving too fast. When the minister mentioned a state visit as an excuse for being in a hurry, the officer apparently replied, "I don’t give a damn."
Berlin politeness: coming soon
Taxi drivers, on the other hand, always give a damn about your destination. I landed in Berlin late at night after a business trip and took a taxi home. "You’re kidding me," the driver snapped. "Have I been waiting in line for two hours, in order to take you to the city centre? I must earn money; I can’t afford wasting my time with such short trips."
My "short" trip was actually about five kilometers (about 3 miles). My tip was conspicuously absent.
In Berlin, it's easy to get confused. The other day, a group of students asked a bus driver (in German) if he was going to the airport. At first, he was too busy to reply. When the students asked again, he gave them a bored "Yes" while indicating with a sweep of his hand that they should move along. Fortunately for them, I had witnessed the scene and could tell them the bus was actually going in the exact opposite direction from the airport.
As a matter of fact, the city's mayor was right when he said Berlin is poor but sexy. For 2.30 euros - the price of a bus ticket - you can get a two-in-one offer: a ride and a show courtesy of Berlin's entertaining bus drivers.
And, like first-class entertainers, they're also good for a surprise. One morning when I got on the bus, something seemed to be going seriously wrong. "This is the famous new railway station," "You can see the German Parliament on the other side," "Three minutes to the next station," said a mild voice through the loudspeakers.
Everyone on the bus started murmuring, "What's wrong with him? Is he crazy?" The gentleman who had been told by the driver, "Good morning sir, have a nice day!" suspiciously looked back over his shoulder with a stunned expression on his face.
To this day, I haven't been able to find out what had gotten into that bus driver. Maybe he was the only one taking notes during the city's friendliness campaign. Or maybe he was just having a good day. But it definitely wasn’t the show everyone had expected.
Maybe Berliners have a point: What's the point of being polite and friendly if no one appreciates it?
Author: Lavinia Pitu
Editor: Kate Bowen