In Berlin, take an umbrella to work | Scene in Berlin | DW | 06.08.2012
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Scene in Berlin

In Berlin, take an umbrella to work

To say the weather has put a damper on Berliners' hopes of beach parties and barbecues would be an understatement. However, it’s even worse for the unlucky few who have to work outside.

So far this summer has been a disaster. I can count on one hand the days when the sun has shone for more than two consecutive hours, when temperatures were so high that all I wanted to do was plunge in one of Berlin's many lakes, and when I longed for a cold beer instead of a hot coffee.

One of the best things about Germany's capital is - usually - the few weeks a year when all of a sudden everyone is out on the streets in a state of euphoria after months of cold and grey. So like most Berliners I have been constantly complaining about this year's dismal weather. Optimistically, I am placing all my bets on August and if things don’t change then I'll be doing sun dances to bring on an Indian summer later on.

Luxury treatment in the elements

Monbijoupark in Berlin Mitte

On a summer's day Berlin can be idyllic

But I know that my complaints are shallow, really. Since I work behind a desk, I spend most of my days inside anyway, sheltered from the torrential downpours that have become a regular feature. If I cannot bicycle to work, I can still hop on a bus and get there dry.

For the many Berlin residents who work outdoors, however, these unpredictable weather conditions can be disastrous.

A massage artist who on good days sets up her equipment near crowded cafés told me she had had a tough time paying the rent this year. "It's easy to massage people in the open air but most restaurants don’t let you approach customers inside. This job calls for good weather," she said.

When I first saw massage artists setting up their little stools in the open air and offering their services to tired shoppers and flaneurs, I thought it was a genius idea. For a few euros, you can sit back, relax and be drawn into a state of near unconsciousness as they get to work on those nasty knots in your neck and back. With the sun shining on your aching body, this is almost as close to bliss as you can get!

Except when it's cold and rainy, of course. And when it's raining the last thing I feel like is an outdoor haircut. Yet, this also struck me as a great idea when I was shopping at the Turkish market a few weeks ago. Once a quick stop for a cheap box of cucumbers, it now caters to the wealthier crowds moving into the area, so you can also find truffle ravioli, regional goat cheeses and homemade jams.

The market has become a bit of a cult institution and now that it is mentioned in all the guidebooks it attracts all the tourists looking for some entertainment. They want to buy pastes, olives and flatbreads, find a spot in the shade, listen to a busker or two, and why not have a haircut while they’re at it? They have all the time in the world.

The hairdressers I saw also had a genius idea. But they weren't banking on this summer's weather! The first time I spotted them, I didn’t have time. The second time, the queue was too long. And it's practically been raining ever since so they must have packed up their scissors and found a job with a roof.

Rain in front of hte Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

An umbrella is the essential Berlin accessory

Rain or shine

Market traders don't have this luxury, however. They have to be there rain or shine, whether it's 30 below and snowing or 30 above and humid.

At least that's what I thought until I discovered that my favorite stand from the Spreewald was no longer to be found week in week out on Hermannplatz. I used to love their banter as they praised their apples and potatoes, their myriad varieties of cabbage or Swiss chard, their succulent summer tomatoes, and of course their pickled cucumbers.

Banter is not generally a widespread concept in Germany and I found these traders very refreshing. Perhaps being out in the open makes you more comfortable, ready to shout or make a fool of yourself, freer. So free that you can choose to set up shop elsewhere if you feel like it after all…

Turkish market on Maybachufer

Market traders have to work rain or shine

Since they disappeared, I’ve discovered another stand where the asparagus, cherries and strawberries are to die for. On a sunny day, I know that I'll be able to pick up a kilo or two for dinner but this summer I have approached the spot each night with trepidation, fearing this time the rain will have frightened them off or they too will have vanished into thin air.

So far, so good - I've rarely been let down and the reason is, says one of the stallholders, that the right clothing exists for all kinds of weather and for her that's what makes working outside so agreeable.

"I love being in the open air. I feel free. I wouldn't have another job," she insisted. Even in winter, I asked? "Even in winter!"

Instead of the stage

The jugglers and fire-swallowers I often see at Berlin's traffic lights embody this spirit, too. They hop and dance and risk their lives to entertain drivers who are forced to stop when it’s red, hoping to earn a couple of cents with their circus acts.

As I cycled past one day, a juggler with a twinkle in his eye had got so carried away with his antics and entertaining the passers-by that his clubs fell onto a car windshield. The driver was not impressed and was just about to get out of his car and vent his rage when the lights turned. By this point the juggler had winked cheekily at me and scuttled out of the way.

Two jugglers in Berlin

Juggling can be a dangerous profession

He and his colleagues are but some of the many performers in Berlin who have to find an alternative to the stage. The newspaper sellers who accost you on terraces are also entertainers. Often unemployed actors, they don't give you the standard lowdown about the particular qualities of a broadsheet but will deliver their spiel in verse, quote Goethe, speak to you in French, reenact a scene of a Kleist play or sing in order to catch your attention.

Those other ubiquitous newspaper sellers in Berlin - the homeless who sell the inaptly named "Motz" (roughly translated as grumble or whine) seem to have been taught how to sound as miserable as possible. Not a very good selling technique! Yet, of all the people who work outside in Berlin, they are clearly most in need of financial aid and thus most in need of the performing skills to sell their publication.

For many others, it is a lifestyle choice. But for the homeless, working outside is a necessity. So next time I get caught in a summer downpour, I will hold my breath before I complain that I can’t go to the open-air cinema as planned or to a picnic on the banks of the river.

Unless, of course, I’ve forgotten my umbrella.

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