I come from Ilford, a small town on the borders of Essex and East London, and a major difference between Ilford and Berlin is that in Ilford strangers speak to each other.
We're not all cheery and familiar like Northerners in England or anything, but we do speak to each other. There's a fair amount of street harassment, quite a lot of flirting, a few grannies desperate to tell you an anecdote about a window cleaner, and a little bit of aggression.
When I moved to Berlin, 14 years ago now, at the tender age of 20, I just about felt like I had turned invisible. Berliners did not speak to me. The boys didn't chat me up, and the grannies didn't tell me any anecdotes. Sometimes I felt kind of starved for stranger-based affection.
But that all changed four years later when I had my son. When you have a baby or a small child in Berlin, strangers talk to you on the street. Strangers talk to you on the U-Bahn. Strangers talk to you in the supermarket. They come up to you and they talk to you and give you non-solicited parenting advice.
I was once out with my son in Friedrichshain at 7pm. I had to get money out and I didn't want to do it the next day – he was about ten months old and not in kindergarten yet.
We had no reason to get up the next day and our routine was fairly relaxed – I think his bedtime was about 11pm back then. A granny came up to me. “Your child needs to be in bed!” She said. “Yes, okay!” I answered. “Your poor child should be in bed. The children should be asleep at 7pm,” she said. “Okay,” I said. “Thank you.” I didn't even roll my eyes. I'd become used to that kind of thing.
You really have to get used to receiving this kind of feedback when you're a young mum in Berlin. Your kid needs a hat on, at all times, in winter because of the cold, in summer because of the sun.
Your kid needs to go to bed, your kid needs food, your kid needs water, your kid needs socks on underneath their sandals.
If I were to ever get pregnant again, I wouldn't bother buying any of those parenting “Ratgeber” books this time round. You get so much advice from grannies on the street, you might as well save your money and get the tips for free.
Back when my son was born, my German wasn't as good as it is now – and I have to admit, it's not as good now as it should be, either. But when Ryan was a little baby, although I spoke German more often than I do now, my comprehension of German was fairly bad.
My son got sick a lot when he was a little baby – colds and throat infections and eye infections too. All the grannies in Friedrichshain would come up to me, wherever I happened to be, and inform me that the problem was "Zug".
The Zug means draught, and grannies in Friedrichshain thinks it causes all illnesses the world has even known ever. I suspect they think it's the cause of Aids, cancer and depression.
The trouble was that back then my German wasn't sturdy enough to process the word “Zug.” I spelt the word they were telling me “Sook” in my head – and I thought it was a terrible, terrible chemical that they'd used for building houses in East German times.
One time, when I was at the Friedrichshain Jugendamt, a granny in the lift looked at my son and his infected eye and nodded sagely. “That's the Sook, that is,” she said. “It gets through the walls in these old buildings.” “But there's no Sook here is there?” I asked her. “Not in the Jugendamt?” “Course there is,” she said. “It's everywhere.”
Bloody hell, I thought. This sook is even in the Jugendamt! I kept on looking the word “Sook” up in the dictionary but of course I never found it.
Years later, when my son was three, I found out that it was spelt “Zug” and realized once and for all that they were just talking about cold air and I swear I have never felt so relieved in my life.
So, all I am trying to say is if there are any lonely expats out there, desperate for a bit of social interaction with strangers, all you need to do is have a baby – and leave their hat at home once a week.
By Jacinta Nandi