One man’s quest to have a normal bike ride in Berlin.
The first time I set out cycling around Berlin with a helmet on, I felt as if I had achieved a death-defying feat of bravery. Indeed, almost as brave as its alternative, cycling around Berlin without a helmet on. It is not a decision taken lightly, and one that grips every self-respecting Berlin hipster with an agonising sartorial choice. On the one hand, I would be forced to remove my baseball cap and adorn a hideous bulbous shell, facing potential sneers from my vintage Peugeot-pedalling peer group members. On the other hand, I could potentially be hit by a taxi door and die. It was a tough call. The moment a child no older than ten stood up and saluted me as I cycled by I realised that not only are people wearing helmets a rare sighting here but also potentially intimidatingly militaristic in appearance. Even middle-aged sensible-looking parental types who could pass as my own mother seem to belt round the city with no regard for their own safety, and who can blame them? No one wants to arrive at work with their hair sweat-matted onto their forehead. So why was I?
Fortunately my fashion conundrum had been brought to a satisfyingly simple conclusion when a hapless taxi driver piled into me from an underground carpark, sending me hurtling over my handlebars in one of those slow-motion moments in which I could have probably sung a little song to myself before smacking my head on the tarmac. Luckily the bodily damage amounted to little else than some minor grazing, but the shocked expressions on the driver and two besuited businessmen who flung the doors open immediately afterwards suggested it could well have been curtains. Attempting to re-mount the bike to get to a lesson I was supposed to be teaching at a company ten minutes later, I realised I wasn’t going to get far down the road when I looked down and saw that the front wheel was in fact facing in a different direction to my frame. At this point the driver, who was actually incredibly apologetic, offered me a lift and we sat in awkward silence for what seemed an eternity while I tapped along to some lively Turkish music on the radio on my bruised thighs.
Fast forward a couple of hours and not only has the driver redeemed himself by slipping me two hundred euros for a new bike, he has taken me to a nearby kebab house, where we sit heartily tucking into halloumi im brot and attempting to conduct a conversation in broken German and English respectively, struggling to move the topic beyond the one thing we have in common, our shared experience of being on two sides of the same car accident; ‘So, erm, how long have you been driving a taxi?’, ‘When did you, erm, pass your test?’, and so on.
To be fair to the driver in question (who actually turned out to be quite a nice gentleman), it’s easy to take your eyes off the ball in Berlin, what with its carnivalesque atmosphere, its unique opportunities for people-watching and the sheer amount of other things to point those eyeballs at. I discovered this first-hand myself a few weeks later when, cycling back with gleeful abandon in the bright sunshine of a summer’s day following an afternoon swimming in Plötzensee, my wet towel wrapped around my neck, my wind-swept swimming shorts barely concealing my genitalia, I became entranced by how beautiful the leaves looked swaying gently next to the white-washed tenement buildings beside me, and ploughed directly into the back of an old woman who had been keeping up a leisurely pace in front, sending her flying in much the same trajectory I had taken during the taxi incident. ‘Tut mir leid, tut mir leid’, was all I could offer as the woman got to her feet and began screaming at me in German. With luck she was completely unscathed – though the same could not be said for my bike, which had been bent to an awkward angle and now let out a cringe-inducing screeching sound when I attempted to continue my journey.
So, onto bicycle number three (bear in mind I had only been in Berlin around eight months by this point) and I am now on first name terms with the man at the bike shop down the road, who I suspect is starting to think that I am a bit of an idiot. Perhaps to demonstrate that I am not, I wisely invest in the cheapest helmet there is on offer, a ten euro deal that looks like something a child should wear. Aware of the two accidents I have already had, gone are the days of no-hands-on-the-handlebars exhibitionism akin to the victory lap of the Tour-de-France. Now my children’s helmet is firmly strapped under my chin and I am cycling around, as my friend disdainfully put it, ‘like (his) grandma’. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, this brings my story conveniently to the part in which my next bike, a beautiful retro city bike, which, I have been reliably informed – by those who believe in such binary gender constructs – looks like ‘a girl’s bike’, gets stolen. Truth be told, I had been out enjoying the hedonistic excess of an all night lock-in at my housemate’s restaurant, and when I emerged from under the shutters into the thin light of a Saturday morning, I couldn’t entirely remember what mode of transport I had taken upon my arrival nevermind whether I had locked said bicycle to a lamppost properly. When the realisation hit me after the tenth time of stumbling up and down Oranienstrasse mumbling ‘must be here, must be here’, I had the distinct impression (which may well have been accentuated by intoxication) that my world had in fact come to an end, resulting in a flurry of melodramatic text messages to friends and a slurred monologue into my pillow ‘it’s the only thing I have in the world…’ etc.
The reason I was so upset, of course, is because, well, yes, I was pretty wasted, but having a bike opens the door to so many liberating experiences in Berlin that you can’t have otherwise (unless you’re cycling down Karl Marx strasse, in which case it is just terrifying). I knew at that point that I would be consigned to travelling on the UBahn, to being harassed by crazy people, to listening to people pumping their crap music out of wireless speakers and to having my face caressed by a stranger’s armpit. Sometimes when I am cycling – shortly before I get hit by a vehicle – I just look around me in awe at the dynamo lights flickering around in a pretty procession, or the trees all bursting with Autumnal colours, or the hipsters all sipping on their Club Mates by a glistening canal. This is what I was doing the other day whilst cycling (with bicycle number 4) down by the Landwehr when for no apparent reason, a man walked up to me, punched me in the face and then walked off.
I guess the helmet is pretty useless after all.