Distrikt is an Australian cafe in Berlin’s Mitte. The staff are friendly and the coffee is good. Click to read the full story by set in Melbourne…
There is a type of loneliness that can only be felt among others. It’s different to being alone, or feeling lonely in the privacy of your own home. It’s the sense of loneliness you feel when the world is buzzing around you. When cars drive fast alongside you, when people bump into you as they rush to work. It’s when the sounds of sirens pass you by, traffic honking, people shouting. It’s when you enter a cafe full of people, people who could be your friends, but aren’t. It’s when you sit and observe. Observe actions, behaviours, conversations. You can see their connectedness, but you can’t feel it. Maybe it’s disconnection, rather than loneliness; maybe it’s the same thing.
Observation can occur from afar, like the coffee table I’m sitting at in Distrikt, a café in Berlin’s Mitte. My table is raised one level, with a view of the entrance to the café below. I’m watching people coming and going; waiting in line for a table. They ask to be seated – in German or in English. The New Zealand waitress always responds in English. Her voice is sugary. It’s “teen meenuts” wait for a table. Her vowels are stretched out like caramel. There’s something comfortable about her. If you found her sitting in your living room unannounced, uninvited you wouldn’t be surprised. You’d want to offer her a cup of oolong tea, and give her extra refills. She offered me extra refills when I first arrived.
Observation can also occur within a conversation. I observe a couple sitting next to me. The boy is talking. He’s lively. He speaks English with a German accent. I can understand snippets amongst the gentle hum of café sounds. Plates, machines, chairs scraping on floors, and voices – many voices in many languages. He is talking about Berlin. I imagine they are on a date. He is a local, or semi-local.
Is anyone local in Berlin?
If Kennedy called himself a Berliner after one day perhaps everyone is local.
It takes but a day.
She speaks English fluently, but the short responses that I’ve overheard so far do not indicate a nationality. There’s a good chance she’s Spanish or Italian but attended international schools or lived abroad. The rootlessness of modern times creates this unaccented language.
She is also an observer, but an active observer. She participates in his conversation – the second tête in this tête-à-tête. She laughs at his jokes, she responds to his questions, she smiles as he talks. But she asks more questions than she answers and she does not mirror his body language. She allows for pauses that he feels he must fill. She unpeels her companion, layer by layer like a mouldy onion. Not knowing when or if she will reach an appealing layer. Her dedication to this, builds a one sided connectedness. He feels understood and thereby fails to notice that her brown skin is still intact.
They get up. They take their coats. He walks to the counter and pays. He follows her out of the café.
A half American, half French quartet takes their place. They speak English to one another; but French oozes into the dialog. I overhear the American girl say she could never learn French.
There is a small queue of people waiting to enter the café. Distrikt is popular and I am taking up a four-seater table alone. The waitress has not said anything, or scowled at me. But I still feel as though I’m a nuisance. I am taking up too much room, I haven’t ordered enough and I won’t be able to leave a big tip. With my laptop as shield I hope to go unnoticed. Being unnoticed is easier alone. We move less; our hands and arms do not need to conduct the ebbs and flows of a conversation, our faces are not bound by expressions. We must communicate only with ourselves, in silence.
Loneliness, they say, can kill you. I don’t know if they refer to loneliness or being alone. But I’ve heard of people dying of loneliness. Like couples who die within days of each other. Isn’t that odd; that people die from loneliness? That a feeling, invisible to the naked eye, can cause biological changes in our body – like cancer? That our will to live can be solely based on another? Survival of the fittest – or survival of the loving.
Sitting in this café, am I slowly causing my own destruction? Is this sense of detachment – the one I treasure, protect and show off – slowly causing microscopic shifts within me? Are neuronal connections slowly growing stronger and weaker by the absence of belongingness? I notice the grooves running along the wooden table. Tiny tethers forming deep and thick circles. Running my fingers along the groove, it feels like one smooth indent, as if many fingers had glided along before mine. The tip of my thump bumps along a paper-thin ridge, not yet worn down. I imagine myself tiny, a Lizzie McGuire cartoon, balancing along this ridge, my little footsteps slowly serving to even out the path. My awareness is brought back to the café by the voice of the French girl at the table next to me.
“I don’t like Tinder,” she announces.
“I like the game, the seduction game, you don’t know if they like you or not, on Tinder it’s too easy. You swipe, you know. There’s no surprise. No guess.”
The French guy wants to download Tinder while in Berlin.
“Want me to take your Tinder photo,” the French girl asks in a teasing tone.
The boy declines but asks for help to choose which photos to upload.
“No topless ones – please!” says the American girl.
“Why not?” asks the French girl.
“It makes him look like a dick.”
“But he is already on Tinder,” she laughs, “He’s not looking for the love of his life, why not show his body if it’s good?”
“Would you swipe right to someone with a topless photo?”
“I don’t use Tinder, but of course, why not.”
She takes hold of the French guys phone and starts flicking through his photos. “Cette photo,” she says. She dominates the conversation, her voice slightly louder, more exotic than the rest. Or perhaps it is her voice that I am most interested in. How easily our attention can be channelled to just one person. We notice their eyes, their posture, their voice, their distinct way of tilting their head. All of a sudden mesmerised by our belief that we have spotted someone unique. We create in our minds, the other’s mind, through the gestures we observe. Building within ourselves a sense of understanding – an intimate connectedness that can only be felt towards a stranger.
She is now taking a photo with the French guy for him to upload.
“Oh no I look so tired,” she says. “When I’m tired, I’m so ugly. My boyfriend takes photos of me when I wake up and – ha ha you’re so ugly,” she says mimicking a man’s voice.
“Can I geet you enother tea?” the New Zealand waitress asks. She startles me out of my intense prying, as if I momentarily forgot I still existed. I nod, “thank you.”
“Cruisy” she says and turns her back. I watch her hips sway side to side as she walks down the stairs towards the counter.
Over the screen of my laptop I will the French girl to look at me. I lean my head on my hand with a concentrated expression, that flickers interest at imagined endeavours on my blank screen. She continues to speak in her accented tongue and I imagine it directed at me. I imagine her moving to my table and taking seat in one of the three empty chairs. I imagine her leaning over to snap shut my computer and taking my hand. I imagine her eyes staring at me, like I’m interesting, no longer a nuisance.
The cup of tea is placed in front of me, it’s weaker, a refill. I can see the bottom of the cup. The waitress smiles at me before moving along to the table next door. The French girl orders more coffee. As she speaks to the waitress I notice the tiniest trace of ugliness in her. I stare back at my screen and begin to write.
I do not notice when she leaves, or when the New Zealand waitress’s shift finishes. I do not notice that my cup was refilled once more, and that I let it go cold. I only notice my lonesome body in this now empty café as I’m finishing writing this sentence.
The story is over and I am unsatisfied.
– The End –
Cover image courtesy of iGNANT.